Recently, a hot topic on the Web has been the Carnegie Unit, the century-old model used by both secondary and higher education systems to measure educational attainment by students in various courses. Also referred to as credit hours or student hours, the system has come under scrutiny by many in the educational community who believe that a major shortcoming with the model is its inability to link "seat time" with actual learning.

Last month, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching published a new study entitled "The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Educational Landscape." Interestingly, the Foundation agreed that the time had come to redefine the credit hour.

In its report, it opened by stating, "The Carnegie Foundation is committed to making American education more effective, more equitable, and more efficient at this critical junction in the nation’s history. We share change advocates' goals of bringing greater transparency and flexibility to the design and delivery of K-12 and higher education in pursuit of deeper learning for more students."

The report went on to remind readers of the importance of its system, one that provides "common currency" between schools and colleges, "making possible innumerable exchanges and interconnections among institutions." Despite its importance, the report also described the model as a "rough gauge" that "sought to standardize students' exposure to subject material by ensuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time."

The Foundation admitted that "It was never intended to function as a measure of what students learned. Teachers and professors were left to gauge students' actual learning through grades and tests, papers, and other performance measures." The Foundation admits that "many promising improvement initiatives are already underway" but these "must be accompanied by rigorous efforts to gather evidence and learn from these experiments as they evolve."

Following the Foundation’s report, blogger and educational activist Chris Sturgis of Competency Works published her reaction in an article entitled "What Would Andrew (Carnegie) Do?" There, Sturgis pointed out a number of shortcomings with the Foundation's report. She noted that the report asked educators to look at Carnegie Units in isolation from things like grading, but the two cannot be separated.

She also explained that "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."

Despite the Carnegie Foundation's attempts to keep its model relevant until something better can come along, it seems for many schools in both secondary and higher education, the train has left the station. Education Week reports that "about 40 states now have policies that allow students to replace Carnegie units with demonstrations of competency or out-of-school experiences for academic credit." Ed Week noted that states like New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont have taken that idea a step further — requiring schools to use competency measures rather than seat time to assign credit.

Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), and Chris Sturgis developed what is considered the best working definition of competency education back in 2013 in their paper "Necessary for Success: Building Mastery of World-Class Skills." There, they defined competency education as an approach to teaching and learning in which:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery,
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students,
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students,
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs,
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include the application and creation of knowledge, and
  6. The process of reaching learning outcomes encourages students to develop skills and dispositions important for success in college, careers and citizenship.

Competency education is not just a "promising improvement initiative." It can provide the structure to replace the need for the Carnegie Unit.

It seems the Carnegie Foundation may be grasping at straws in an attempt to maintain its relevance. It may find themselves in the same situation as the president of Blockbuster Video was in a few years ago — the world has found a better, more accurate and more efficient way to operate. It's not too late for the Carnegie Unit, but if it doesn't find a way to reinvent itself quickly, it will be.