Education Policy | Analysis

Carnegie: States Mostly Mired in 'Carnegie Unit' Practices

Carnegie is questioning the value of dismantling the credit hour — a concept created from its own history. The "Carnegie unit," as it's called, has been used for the last 100-plus years as a "near-universal" metric in high school and higher education to measure a student's progress toward graduation.

Now the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an independent research and policy organization based in Stanford, CA, has released a working draft of a paper that examines K-12 credit policies in the United States as part of a larger initiative to consider revising what that unit should represent. Only a single state — New Hampshire — has fully embraced an alternative.

As Elena Silva, a senior associate for research and policy on the project, recently explained in a blog posting, while the number of units and credits issued for a given course of work varies from school to school, the formula stays the same. "A certain number of hours equal a unit, a certain number of units equal a credit, and a certain number of credits produce some sort of credential or degree." The problem with that, she noted, is that while the use of the credit makes for "a more efficient system, the unit also promotes the false perception that time equals learning, in the same way for all students."

Using "seat time" as the sole approach to measuring learning doesn't make sense, Silva pointed out, when schools "can deliver information anywhere, anytime, and to nearly anyone."

However, replacing that construct with something else will be a major undertaking, she added, since a number of other aspects of education rely on it. For K-12 that includes instructional plans, testing schedules, and teacher contracts. In higher ed credit hours drive financial aid decisions and faculty workload and compensation.

Multiple efforts are underway to replace credit hours with education based on proving competency — sometimes referred to as "mastery-based" or "proficiency-based" learning.

A challenge in the K-12 world is that many states have embedded the concept of the credit hour into law and department of education policies. To understand the practices in this area, the Carnegie research group undertook a scan of course credit policies in the 50 states.

The seven-page working document that resulted lays out five categories of states based on how each defines an education credit in K-12:

Category 1. The Carnegie Unit has been abolished as primary measure of student learning. Credits are awarded based on a student's mastery of content and skills. There's only one state currently that fits into this category: New Hampshire.

Category 2. Districts define credits; they may use seat time or some other measure to award credit for core classes. Twenty-nine states fit into this grouping:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Category 3. Districts have the option of applying for "special status" or waivers to use a measure other than seat time for core classes. Four states are part of this bunch:

  • Louisiana
  • Ohio
  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia.

Category 4. Districts must use time-based credit. This is the stipulation in 10 states and the District of Columbia. In this category Massachusetts and Virginia both offer seat-time waivers but only for online courses.

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Massachusetts
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Wyoming

Category 5. These districts have flexibility in special circumstances, such as credit recovery or out-of-school learning. Six states are in this category:

  • Alabama
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • North Carolina
  • Tennessee

Eventually, the foundation will release a report that examines the Carnegie unit in the context of current instructional practices and lays out the potential consequences for replacing it with something new.

The research work is being funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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