Research: Ripping Out Carnegie Unit Can't Promise Ed Reform Success

The idea of the Carnegie unit as one of the defining measurements in education will be tough to uproot, according to a new report out by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. And even if it were eliminated, there would be no guarantees of improved student performance. In fact, suggested the report, at a minimum, the Carnegie Unit at least ensures students equal time to learn.

The report covers the results of a two-year study, which likens the credit hour to a "common currency" for multiple aspects of education, including academic calendars, faculty workloads and compensation, transfer and graduation requirements, athletic eligibility and distribution of federal financial aid.

The same organization published a report in August 2013 that examined K-12 credit policies in the United States to better understand potential alternatives.

The report lays out the historic evolution that the Carnegie Unit has followed since its earliest use as a way to set up a pension system for college professors, funded by Andrew Carnegie. It also profiles alternatives to the credit hour approach being used and tested, including the competency model, whereby the student proves what he or she has mastered before being allowed to progress in the course or program.

What started more than a century ago, according to "The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape," as a "rough gauge of student readiness" for college-level courses has become a "crude proxy for student learning." What the unit, also called the credit hour, does, the authors explained in the new report, is to measure the amount of time a student spends in courses, not what's actually learned.

"Measuring learning was left to the discretion of individual teachers and professors," said Elena Silva, a senior associate at the foundation and co-author of the report. "Given the great diversity in goals and activities in the U.S. educational system and the autonomy enjoyed by faculty, particularly in higher education, creating an alternative to the Carnegie Unit poses formidable challenges. While the Carnegie Unit has many limitations, it does provide a minimum guarantee of student access to opportunities to learn."

The report noted that the elimination of the credit hour could result in disadvantaged students — "students for whom inequitable resources and variable quality are more the rule than the exception" — facing greater risk. The thinking: that "learning takes time," and an environment in which time is a variable could result in perpetuating their disadvantages.

What American schools and colleges need, the authors said, are "more informative measures of student performance," which will require the development of new learning standards, learning assessments and accountability systems.

But even if there were a shift away from the Carnegie Unit, the authors pointed out, "there is too little evidence to claim with confidence" that student performance would improve, at least not without "rigorous standards and assessments" as well.

The foundation encouraged policymakers to allow for "regulatory relief" in cases where the credit hour has become a "barrier to innovation," such as with regulations in place for federal financial aid and at accrediting agencies.

However, the biggest change the foundation promoted in its report is for educators and policymakers to push for systematic testing of "new learning standards, high-quality assessments and accountability models that focus greater attention on student learning" in order to understand which innovations have traction and for whom and in which circumstances.

"Put simply, it is not enough just to have good reform ideas," wrote foundation President Anthony Bryk in his introduction to the report. "Educators as a community must learn their way into executing those ideas well. This often means starting small, learning from our failures, and constantly using data to chart progress and inform efforts at continuous improvement."

The report can be downloaded at

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.