In our article titled “Tough Question,” we examined the utility of the Carnegie Unit within a knowledge-based economy. Through our exploration, we concluded that there were five aspirational elements that could be fostered with the removal of this administrative tool. It is our belief that from such a space the dynamics of learning would invite, influence, and inspire a new definition of education. If it were only that simple. An intrinsically motivated learner understands that when delving deeply into an idea, questions tend to beget questions. While it is apparent that a transformational shift from the Carnegie Unit is necessary, the question is whether it is possible. Navigate the system of education for a period of time and it becomes abundantly clear that factors far beyond the need of the learner have tremendous sway over policy.
Funding and the many threads of competing interests that emerge from this economic factor exert a significant influence upon public education. Embedded in this function of schooling is the administrative instrument of the Carnegie Unit. This mechanism has been viewed as a simple method to coordinate the many subsystems that comprise the broader institution of education. As a structural element in funding, the unit has created a rigid approach to learning and has hampered attempts to reframe the paradigms by which learning is viewed. In conjunction with the political and social factors inherent in public education, the Carnegie Unit has been a stabilizing feature in an institution that is reluctant to evolve with the changing times. These exogenous variables have limited the capacity of the institution to pause and employ an introspective model that can substantively examine the relationship between time and learning.
Bureaucracies are unique entities, particularly in instances when practices are not challenged and examined through a competitive marketplace. As a governmental agency, the institution of education has no external influence that inspires substantive shifts or disrupts the status quo. Hence, the systematic reliance on the Carnegie Unit has remained unchanged for over a century. Jónasson (2016) has aptly attributed this continuous state of inertia to a landscape where there are no consequences for inaction. Although Ostrom (2005) has suggested institutions are built specifically to constrain and thus slow to change, there are a number of stakeholders who greatly benefit from the status quo. Elmore’s (1997) dissection of this phenomenon illustrates the great complexity that exists when reformers attempt to navigate the multitude of vested interests among stakeholders.
Adherence to Uniformity
Within this arena resides the theme of funding and the political influence that comes from federal statutory regulations, state mandates, and unionism. Each of these exogenous factors relies on the Carnegie Unit as a means to perpetuate paradigms that keep the system in a constant cycle of inconsistency. An asymmetry that Elmore (2019) has suggested fuels the political expediency necessary for administrative continuity. Along with a host of other factors, engaging this daunting triumvirate contributes to the cognitive dissonance that fosters conformity. Moreover, it instills the belief that the Carnegie Unit is essential to the maintenance of public education (Hansen, 2019). Reliance on this archaic mechanism merely for administrative processes is part of the faulty logic that breeds a cycle of failure (Tarko, 2017). Such conditions force reformers to combat the inconsistency between policy, words, and actions embedded within the federal/state and collective bargaining dynamic that promotes the application of the Carnegie Unit. In order to ameliorate the asymmetry that exists, policymakers must employ Malone’s (2020) advice to encourage and develop a consistent language and framework for advocacy.
Federal mandates like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and more recently the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are examples of accountability measures that purport to shift the educational landscape (Klein, 2016). However, as with the NCLB which was replaced by ESSA, these applications are predicated on the faulty assumption that time equates to growth. The result is adherence to statutory regulations for the benefit of funding, not student growth. Hardy, (2018) has expressed that compliance is a derivative of the narrow scope that accompanies standardization. It serves as an inherent component that grounds the time-based metric of the Carnegie Unit. In doing so, it has advanced the hierarchical structure within the current model of schooling. An approach that has perpetuated the cycle of mediocrity that has stifled attempts at reform.
While there are instances where authentic leaders have used discontent as a vehicle to ameliorate inconsistencies, the political nature of education has made such progress short-lived. Specifically within state governments where responses to federal regulations have led to unfunded mandates and accountability measures (Elmore, 1997). This unfortunate cycle has led to reactionary measures by local districts that are required to employ these practices under the constraints of the Carnegie Unit. Along with convoluted algorithms and arbitrary benchmarks, district leaders operate in fear of being placed on state accountability lists. As emphasized by Gutiérrez and Ngounou (2021) pressures regarding resources combined with restrictive hierarchical practices tend to inhibit leaders from contesting entrenched paradigms. This bureaucratic reality reflects the greatest challenge facing those seeking to examine the utility of the Carnegie Unit as a vehicle to reimagine education.
Courage to Engage
Although defined as polycentric, Strong (2020) has demonstrated that the institution of education exists on a continuum that leans heavily towards a monocentric approach. A systematic structure not particularly conducive to the authentic collaboration necessary to engage the inconsistencies of our institutional reality. Consequently, engagement within the system of education becomes an inefficient dance between acts of compliance, appeasement, and surface-level accountability applications. Each highlights the belief that the public school system is a deliberate construction designed to meet systematic interests by allocating status and merit to the survival of the institution (Elmore, 2019). In a system funded by tax dollars, leaders must contend with political underpinnings brought forth by the Carnegie Unit. Understanding that contestation of this structural element challenges the sustainability of the monolith from which many take comfort.
Examining the exogenous factors in the arena of public education and that of an elementary classroom comes with the understanding that learning is subject to the political considerations that foster economic viability for the institution. As such, reform-minded practitioners must recognize that strict adherence to the Carnegie Unit has generated complacency for and within the institution. A mindset that has fostered entrenched paradigms and has limited the courage that Kreber (2010) suggests is critical for authentic dialogue that builds solidarity. Although unionism can be considered an internal factor, we advance the notion that it operates outside the realm of learning. As such, we posit that this external factor has contributed to the cynicism and apathy that influences broader educational policy. Studies like that of Finger (2018) only emphasize the role self-interests have in effectuating public policy and what we suggest is the perpetual cognitive dissonance that pervades the institution.
While several challenges face the institution of education and the communities it serves, the notion of funding is a constant impediment to ensuring equity and quality throughout the system. Formulating sustainable policies demands an honest assessment of the landscape from which funding issues arise. This begins by identifying the root of the issue and the causality associated with meaningfully defining the problem (Cook, 1995). After a thorough accounting of the conditions that frame the current system, it is clear that the three features presented in this analysis exacerbate the inconsistency in quality. Moreover, they highlight the tremendous inequity that results from the Carnegie Unit.
Culture fuels perception and the ability of an organization to meet its charge. With an entrenched institution like education, we must be willing to ask tough questions. Uncomfortable, perhaps. However, it is the only way in which to shift from a state of constant reaction toward the proactive policies that align with espoused values. The asymmetry generated from the Carnegie Unit and the exogenous factors at play result in paradigms that create the selective perception that time is a measure of learning. Reassessing its utility will require a collaborative leadership that extends beyond the politics that drive institutional decisions. Moreover, it will require a commitment to redefine the parameters by which a language of purpose is formulated. The “why” is clear. Unfortunately, without clear definitions, the “how” is a bit murky. We suggest there is a path towards promise — questioning assumptions to define purpose is the first step.
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