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What Would Andrew Do?

January 29, 2015 by
Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

(See the second post on this topic Beyond the Carnegie Unit)

Earlier today, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) released their report The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape. [Disclaimer: I was a member of the Advisory Committee.] It’s a beautifully written report with sweeping historical context and fun little details. (Why is liberal arts college four years? Because CFAT, in designing the requirements for institutions of higher education to have access to Andrew Carnegie’s pension plan, said so.) It’s a must-read for the summary of how competency education is evolving in the K12 and higher education sectors.

However, if you are expecting something as big and bold as Andrew Carnegie himself would dream up, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, I imagine that deep under the snow in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York, Andrew Carnegie is wishing he could find a way to join the conversation.

It’s easy to agree with the findings—that Carnegie Unit (CU) rarely acts as an actual barrier, as in actually prohibiting innovation, with a few important exceptions such as federal financial aid. However, there is an enormous difference between an idea acting as a barrier and  catalyzing improvements in the education system. In focusing the scope of the report on whether or not the CU is a barrier to improvements, CFAT trapped themselves in either-or-ness, rather than engaging in an open inquiry into how we might be able to move beyond the confines of the CU to a more equitable, flexible, and transparent system. Even an analytical report that takes us up close to how the CU operates in administering the education system, specifically higher education, would have allowed us to think more deeply about how to re-engineer the system.

Those of us who have come to terms with the fact that the traditional system—time-based, A through F, age-based advancements—is stifling our students and reproducing inequity are seeking a new language of learning that tries to capture pace, rate, trajectory, and depth of learning. There is none to be found in this paper—not even how we might even begin to think about a new common language of learning.

CFAT made several choices that backed themselves into a corner. First, they insist that we look at the CU in isolation of the other elements of the system, such as grading. They argue that the CU “was never intended to function as a measure of what students learned” and has been “miscast as a measure of learning.” Yet, the education system has interlocking pieces, making it difficult to understand any one piece in isolation. Certainly, CFAT had to select what they would focus on and what they wouldn’t. But to try to separate the CU from the grading system is like a doctor trying to assess one’s health based only on your HDL cholestrol without taking into account your LDL. A student takes a class, they get a grade. If the grade is high enough, they they receive a credit, indicating some acceptable level of learning to take the next class. When colleges use the CU for estimating faculty costs within a budget they are making an assumption that in fact the students will learn — not just be exposed to the content.

There is even indication that CFAT itself is somewhat ambivalent about their position that the CU does not indicate learning. In the conclusion, they suggest otherwise, “Whatever the challenges the Carnegie Unit may pose, in its absence there would be no common language to organize the work of schooling and communicate student accomplishments across a wide range of institutions.” Student accomplishment? Isn’t that what students have learned or can do? Isn’t that an indicator of learning?

Second, although they firmly state the CU is not an indicator of learning, they also want us to see its value as a currency or medium of exchange. Yet, it’s not clear what its value is beyond instructional time or a proxy for student exposure to content. They suggest that the system might fall apart without the Carnegie Unit without ever taking us through what might happen if we did change, eliminate, or modify the application of the Carnegie Unit. What would happen if we said that the CU was based on a student becoming proficient rather than the amount of time of instruction, as New Hampshire has done? Wouldn’t registrars still be able to use a credit to schedule students and create transcripts?

I think that is where I had the most difficulty with the paper. CFAT asks us to accept the CU simply because the system has developed around it. We are asked to accept the CU as an indication of instructional time in a world in which instruction is being delivered online, in which students can watch a video of a lecture rather than the lecturer themselves. We are asked to accept its value as a currency when we all know that districts and colleges can decide whether or not to accept credits from other schools. We are asked to have students seek to accrue credits that have no meaning.

Across the nation, there are educators coming together and deciding they need to do what’s right for kids. They don’t know what exactly the new system will look like, but they know for certain the traditional one isn’t working, just as Andrew Carnegie and his colleagues knew that there could be a better system of education. A century ago, the emphasis was on standardization, while ours is on personalization so that each student receives the support they need to succeed.

Once upon a time, there wasn’t a CU, and someone created it. And now we are going to create a new set of language of learning. It will take an enduring commitment to our students and a big dose of courage and imagination.

I think the title of the next paper should be What Would Andrew Do?

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  1. Comment by Chris Sturgis 9:05 pm, January 29, 2015

    I received a thoughtful email from Tom Toch one of the authors of the paper and asked that we be able to share it as I think it is so important to have dialogue on this issue. Thanks Tom!

    Hi Chris,
    I just read your very thoughtful blog post on our report and thought I’d share a few responses with you.
    I agree completely that grades and the standards they reflect are at the center of the challenges that the Carnegie Unit presents.

    We suggest in the report that the wide variation in classroom and institutional standards that underlay the Carnegie Unit presents is a major sources of the Carnegie Unit’s problem.

    We write: “The primary source of the transparency problem in American education is a lack of measures that accurately convey learning and substantiate the value of credits. The reality, of course, is that both content and rigor vary widely from class to class and institution to institution in what are ostensibly the same courses. The grades that students earn often mask as much as they reveal, misleading students about their accomplishments and depriving educators and institutions of information they could use to strengthen their instruction and programs. “How clearly or objectively does a C-minus in geometry or a B-plus in English Literature describe the extent of any one individual’s understanding of a complex content domain?” asks Camille Farrington, a research associate at the Consortium for Chicago School Research. “Grades,” Farrington asserts, “simply reflect the student’s course performance relative to the teacher’s expectations, which can be vague and unspecified.”

    We go on to point out that: “Exposing the widely varying standards that lie beneath course grades—and encouraging educational institutions and public officials to improve the quality of the education that students receive—would require standards that clearly define rigorous expectations and serve as the basis for equally demanding assessments that reveal students’ actual learning.”
    A new, performance-based metric of student progress would be a great addition. But deploying such a metric on a large scale (as opposed to introducing it in a relative specialized field like nursing training, which we mention in the report) requires common standards and assessments that don’t now exist and that would be particularly difficult to introduce at scale in higher education, with its long history of faculty autonomy and its vast and highly specialized curricula.

    That’s why we endorse so strongly in the report the development of common standards and richer assessments (swimming against the anti-standards, anti-testing tide). Without them, we’re right back with the introduction of a performance-based metric of success to relying on individual teachers’ and professors’ discretion in determining competency–with the widely varying standards that such a system is sure to yield.

    Thanks again for your very helpful contributions to the report as both a formal and informal advisory. I hope we can continue what is a very important conversation about the future of American education.

    Thomas Toch
    Senior Partner
    Director, Washington Office
    Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

  2. Comment by Chris Sturgis 10:27 pm, January 29, 2015

    Elena Silva, another one of the authors wrote me (because our comments section seem to be persnickety today). Great points, thanks Elena!

    Thanks for your thoughtful critique, Chris, and for getting and keeping the dialogue going. If you don’t mind, I’d like to push a little further on the notion that the report is asking everyone to just accept the Carnegie Unit because the system was built around it. We certainly mention that tradition plays a role–that people default to the way it has always been–but the broader point is that it does still play an important role in ensuring that all kids have access to learning. We have a K-12 system right now that is full of resource inequities-we have major finance inequity as well as huge inequities in the distribution of quality teachers and therefore in the quality of education. At the system level, giving up the guarantee of time-albeit a minimum standard-could exacerbate these inequities.That is not to suggest that “seat time” is quality time, only to say as we do in the report that learning takes time and we, as a nation, should have to guarantee some basic time-based opportunity to learn for all students.Certainly, we did not intend to suggest that states should not amend or revise their policies to be more flexible–as you know, many are already doing this and, from the state officials we spoke to, we would anticipate more movement in this direction. Let me also offer that it was CFAT’s first president Henry Pritchett that pushed for the Foundation to study the design and measurement of educational systems, not really Andrew! So the next paper might be more appropriately What Would Henry Do? (Andrew would more likely be caught up in faculty pension debates). To be continued (and thanks for the opportunity to weigh in). — Elena Silva

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