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Tough Question

What would the system of education look like without the Carnegie Unit?

From our vantage point, reimagining education begins with understanding this structural, and some may suggest archaic, element of the system. As such, we provide this broad overview to address the question above and offer a brief illustration of how this entrenched feature of education turns learners into compliance-driven commodities.

Impetus for Examination

Learning within public schooling is measured by an instrument referred to as the Carnegie Unit. The application of this administrative tool has served to center and organize multiple subsystems for one hundred sixteen years. Predicated on the notion of time, this structural element of education has been viewed by many reform-minded practitioners as an impediment to transformational growth. Moreover, it has been attributed to the erosion of confidence and self-identity amongst learners. As such, we suggest it is necessary to examine the utility of the Carnegie Unit by questioning the assumptions that have generated a divide between the notion of learning and that of schooling. In an effort to sustain shifts, several leaders have embraced a willingness to analyze this mechanism of the past as a vehicle to formulate assertions about the future of learning within our schools. This capacity to contextualize and frame perspective is an essential element toward a future of transformative aspirations. It is our belief that with an adaptive nature, academic institutions have the capacity to address the inconsistencies that arise from the Carnegie Unit while unlocking greater avenues of opportunity to improve the quality of education.

As prescribed by the Carnegie unit, subsystems across the educational landscape are guided by a strict adherence to contact hours. An emphasis that we assert has had a deleterious impact on a vast number of learners who attempt to navigate the expectations of schooling. For many, it is a journey defined by the simple belief that education is about getting through. As a structural element of schooling, the Carnegie Unit can be attributed to this belief and the culture that sustains it. By promoting exposure over mastery, the system imposes a model of homogenization where the notion of learning is reduced to an algorithm that determines a consistent amount of instructional time for all learners. When accompanied with the byproduct of standardized assessments, this method fosters asymmetry between the values of learning and the applications of schooling. Subsequently, creating a cycle of cynicism and apathy amongst stakeholders.

Contact Hours and Learning

Developed in 1906, the Carnegie Unit served as a mechanism for creating an equitable pension system by measuring the productivity of college professors (McMillan & Barber, 2020). In short order, this unit of time became the basis for academic scheduling, faculty workloads, and federal aid. Summarily, the credit hour became the linchpin of accreditation for colleges and universities, and a guidepost for public education preparing students to gain admittance to institutions of higher education. Although never intended to be a metric for learning, the system naturally incorporated this tool as the standard measure of learning within all levels of education in the United States. This unfortunate occurrence has resulted in what Elmore (2019) has expressed as an institution regimented by time and entrenched with imperatives of self-interest. Ultimately generating administrative and pedagogical designs that perpetuate faulty definitions of learning.

Those attempting to apply a transformational lens to the system, recognize that the first step to substantive change is in reimagining current constructs. When we simply view the manner in which the metric of time has trickled down to the elementary classroom, it becomes abundantly clear that the Carnegie Unit is an impediment to optimal learning. Those charged with cultivating engaging learning environments understand that growth requires conditions that inspire fluidity and adaptability. A space that instills confidence and risk-taking by embracing individuality. For young and impressionable learners, these attributes are essential to building an identity within the realm of schooling. Under the current construct, the traits of self-efficacy critical for emboldening a culture of intrinsically motivated learners are fundamentally at odds with a system predicated solely on time.

McMillan and Barber (2020) have demonstrated the incongruity that exists between experiential learning and the metric of contact hours. As we have written for the past two years, the quality pedagogical practices employed to foster meaningful learning are not defined by a teacher-directed model. Yet, the Carnegie Unit was developed on this understanding that the sage is on the stage. To that end, we reflect on the question we asked in our previous post— are our decisions formulated based on the learner or on perpetuating instruments that preserve the system? The answer to this question is clear for anyone who has engaged the science. Those who understand that context and the manner in which interpretations are framed serve as the true guideposts by which to gauge learning. In this instance, shouldn’t formative metrics be applied through an individualized process that recognizes the importance of fostering connections that exist between the mind, environment, and self? To answer this question in the affirmative one must be accompanied by a willingness to reexamine the utility of the Carnegie Unit. In doing so, leaders can reframe the parameters by which learning and schooling are defined.

The Implications of Faulty Logic

We need only view elementary schooling to understand that a lack of defined terms promulgates the faulty logic that in turn leads to the development of policy responsible for diminishing our learners' capacity to optimally grow. Even amid innovative learning environments, students are subjected to yearly grade-level assessments regardless of readiness. Placements and summative measures that Rincón-Gallardo (2020) suggests can undermine student well-being. Although elementary learners will never be exposed to the term Carnegie Unit, the journey they embark upon is formulated and structured on this model. The simple movement through grade levels and the measures embedded within have done much to erode the confidence and identity of learners. By standardizing learning to a metric of time, elementary education summarily labels and classifies learners in ways that can resign them to inaccurate beliefs regarding their ability. As Elmore (2019) has stated, these structures of schooling are predicated on institutional interests, not on the capacity to harness and inspire evolutionary learning.

To illustrate, we share a recent experience with the administration of the 2022 NYS English Language Arts assessment, where a group of learners persevered through tremendous academic odds. Under the constructs of the Carnegie Unit, these fifth-grade learners have labels ranging from two grades below to one grade above their current placement. Despite these classifications, the learners were required to interact with a test that ignores the habits of mind and skill. Factors that are derived from deeply connected background experiences that frame cognitive strengths and challenges (Hansen, 2019). Nevertheless, an assessment estimated to take approximately seventy minutes took these learners over five hours to engage. As they have within their progressive learning environment, they were not guided by labels but rather by their capacity to deliberately dissect and internalize ideas. Consequently, they applied that measure to their assessment and found themselves in the unfortunate position of being unable to complete the required questions because they ran out of time in the school day.

While it will be failure that will greet these diligent learners upon receipt of their state assessment scores, it was the immeasurable levels of dedication that will leave an indelible mark on all involved. Regardless of their time-based number, the students learned a great deal about themselves and the inner strength that sits at the heart of intrinsically motivated learning. Although those factors will not be registered or recognized in their scores, the experience illustrates Tyack and Tobin’s (1994) assessment that the grammar of schooling established by the Carnegie Unit is a narrow and ineffective measure of learning. It is from this frame of thought that a distinct and deliberate effort must be put forth by leaders to ensure our learners are not commodities used for institutional accountability but rather unique individuals who must be given the space and time to evolve.

Context affords leaders the opportunity to view policy issues through multiple prisms to find commonality and ultimately progress towards a solution. Analyzing the Carnegie Unit will demand that leaders question the assumptions that foster the rules, norms, inequities, and dissonance of the institution. By engaging in a process of authentic introspection leaders can unlock the meaningful strategic shifts necessary to embrace the fluidity, adaptability, and possibilities inherent in a culture of learning. If a system is grounded in resilience, patience, and dedication then individualized learning becomes a mechanism to disrupt cognitive dissonance and the arbitrary measure of time.

As leaders, we should be unwilling to engage in the trading of values and simply employ them when they are convenient. The inconvenient truth is that education is not providing all learners with the conditions for optimal learning. You cannot reimagine education without understanding and examining the structural elements of the construct we currently navigate. Yes, removing the Carnegie Unit will exact tremendous transactional costs to the system. However, sometimes we must be willing to pay a price in order to emerge from the disruption with a stronger and reinvigorated mindset of purpose. In simple terms, education is about the learner, not algorithms for pension systems and funding.

What would the system of education look like without the Carnegie Unit?

  • A fluid and adaptable environment free of impediments that deprive the individual of opportunities for optimal growth.

  • A system that encourages individuality on a deep and meaningful level.

  • An inspirational space where labels are replaced with passionate discovery and a desire to learn.

  • Accrediting, admittance, and federal regulations that are aligned to the substance of an academic endeavor.

  • An institution that rejects the notion of time making methods and instead subscribes to the vision that methods make time.

#edchat, #reimagineeducation, #schooling


Elmore, R. (2019). The future of learning and the future of assessment. ECNU Review of

Education, 2(3), 328-341.

Hansen, U. (2019). Why does education assessment revolve around the Carnegie Unit?

Education Reimagined.

McMillan, A., & Barber, D. (2020). Credit hour to contact hour: Using the Carnegie Unit to

measure student learning in the United States. Journal of Higher Education Theory

and Practice, 20(2), 88-99.

Rincón-Gallardo, S. (2020). De-schooling well-being: Toward a learning-oriented

definition. ECNU Review of Education, 3(3), 452-469.

Tyack, D., & Tobin, W. (1994). The "Grammar" of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard to

Change? American Educational Research Journal, 31(3), 453-479.

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