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Carnegie Unit Conundrum

July 25, 2012 by

How do you translate a measure of time into a measure of learning?

It seems to me to be the same dilemma as trying to convert a measure of length into a measure of weight.  They are fundamentally, conceptually different.  Across the country (including my state of Iowa), state Departments of Education and local school districts are struggling with converting our current Carnegie unit system into a system that measures learning competencies.

It seems impossible to me to be able to translate a Carnegie unit into a competency.

A Carnegie unit was designed to equal the amount of time in school districts across the nation.  It was a measurement that everyone could understand and use to standardize their educational offerings for comparison and accreditation.  Over time, it has become the defining unit for curriculum development, scheduling, and teacher master contracts (prep periods, anyone?).

But Carnegie units do not tell you what happens within that given time period.  The learning from one district to another can vary widely, and even within a district, because instructional styles and preferences are different.  As we begin to explore all of the facets of a competency-based educational system, we continually come back to the notion of “learning is the constant; time is the variable” versus the current Carnegie maxim of “time being the constant”.

It is the correct notion for me, but it does not make measurement of learning easier.  In fact, learning is a complex process that is not easily quantified.  I think we only further complicate our progress toward a more personalized learning system for students with CBE by trying to convert ‘Carnegie’ to ‘competency’.  This is not a first order change; it is clearly second order.  We should recognize that, and begin to build a CBE system as it was meant to be, not as the next generation of what we currently have.

A Carnegie unit can only be a measure of time.  Since its inception, though, it has taken on more meaning.  We need to strip away all of the additional connotations we have placed upon it, and call it for what it is.  And then leave it in the past, as we move forward.  Time does not equal understanding. Time is needed for understanding but it does not equal it. Therefore any conversion that we make is going to be artificial. We need to recognize that point as we are trying to create a more authentic learning system than what we currently have.  At best, we need to recognize that we have an artificial solution that calls for an authentic one. Anything that we do to continue to use time as a measure is artificial in a competency-based system.

Simply put, a competency is to be an enduring understanding or learning that transcends content as well as time.  With that deep philosophical difference, we need to be careful about what we may or may not create.  For example, all we really have is the Common Core that all students are expected to complete. It seems to me that we need a system to recognize how a student is progressing in learning the Common Core, and we need a system that will demonstrate how we parse those pieces of knowledge from the Common Core into competencies.

Instead of working to convert a Carnegie unit into a competency, we need to focus on how to build competencies and the system that best measures them for what they are.

About the Author

Jason Ellingson is superintendent/curriculum director for Collins-Maxwell Community Schools. Jason is the president of Iowa ASCD, teaches for Viterbo University's Iowa leadership program, and is working on his doctoral dissertation focusing on central office / system responsibilities through the University of Northern Iowa. Jason was just named to ASCD's Emerging Leaders Class of 2012. He is married with four children ages 2 to 8. "I am committed to building a better system of learning for my children and their peers. First, we must recognize what we have built before we can build better."

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1 Comment »

  1. Comment by Chris Sturgis 4:18 pm, July 27, 2012

    Jason, thank you for sharing your thoughts about the limits on trying to convert a carnegie unit into competencies. I agree wholeheartedly with you that learning is a complex process that is not easily quantified.

    Yet I take a slightly different view. Systems require some ways of organizing themselves to create common language and common ideas. Thus, we need some type of container to hold units of learning. We might call them something else rather than the Carnegie unit but it is still going to be a container. Perhaps we are going to discover a way of organizing learning that is incredibly powerful…I think we are only at the beginning of really understanding how learning progresses. Yet in the meantime I think New Hampshire has demonstrated that converting Carnegie unit into competencies is working pretty darn well. There is so much that needs to be re-worked in a competency education system, I worry if we throw it all up in the air and act as of it is a blank page we might get trapped in designing the perfect system.

    So all of this is to say, I think we need to pay a lot of attention to how we think of measuring learning especially in terms of cost-effectiveness of all the instructional supports and opportunities needed to get all of our kids competent…and to keep exploring different ways of organizing learning into units. But in the short-run I think the Carnegie unit appears to be able to be a work-able unit that is defined by competencies.

    If i hear of any states trying to redefine the units of learning…we’ll definitely write about it!

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