As he approaches 15 years of age, my son Brady has now started reminding me regularly that he will be able to drive soon. In the state of New Hampshire, the law will require him to complete 46 hours of driver’s education (including classroom, driving, and observation hours) before he can be eligible for a driver’s license.

Why does the state treat every young driver the same? I know plenty of young drivers who can demonstrate proficiency with their driving skills after half that number of hours. I know plenty more that need double, perhaps even triple those minimum hours.

For a life or death skill such as driving a car, why do we continue to rely on such an antiquated, one-size-fits-all training and assessment model? The Department of Motor Vehicles, much like our colleges and universities, could learn a thing or two from high schools that have moved away from time-based models.

For years, schools have relied on a time-based model known as the Carnegie Unit, which was first introduced as a way to award academic credit based on the amount of time students spent in direct contact with a teacher or professor. The standard Carnegie Unit has long since been defined as 120 hours of contact time with an instructor, an amount that is roughly equivalent to one hour of instruction a day, five days a week for 24 weeks, or 7,200 minutes of instructional time over the course of an academic year.

At the time of its inception, the Carnegie Unit helped bring about a level of standardization that the American education system had never seen. It provided for the educational model what the dollar first provided for our financial system: A common language and a common unit of measure that could be quantified, assessed, and traded.

Carnegie’s industrialist model for measuring learning has long been challenged by educational reformers who believe there are more effective ways to measure student learning, but it hasn’t been until recently that these reformers have had the opportunity to challenge the model at a systemic level. In this MultiBriefs Exclusive from 2015, I wrote about how the Carnegie Foundation was working to clarify its system and its role in modern education. I also wrote about how many states (40 at the time) had instituted statewide policy allowing schools to move away from time-bound measures of earning. As of the date this article was published, 49 out of 50 states now have such policies.

Higher education has long been a holdout on shedding its reliance on time-based learning, but with the sweeping changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to, that may change, and quickly. In a recent article for Forbes, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) President Paul LeBlanc wrote about the need for colleges and universities to “take time out of learning and reinvent higher education.”

LeBlanc’s school has been a trailblazer in competency-based education at the college level and has become one of the fastest growing colleges in the country as a result. One of the hallmarks of competency education is that students can “move when ready” through courses and curriculum once they have demonstrated sufficient evidence that they have reached proficiency.

For LeBlanc, the issue is about equity. He wrote, “Here’s the problem: time is a poor measure of learning – the credit hour is pretty good at indicating how long someone sat in a classroom, but not what they actually learned – and it often hurts the poverty stricken.”

He went on to set the stage for the uphill battle that our system will now be facing: “The economy is reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and 30 million Americans now need to find work. Many will need to complete degrees, retool, and find new career pathways. Some will complete the degree that got side tracked along the way – approximately 37 million Americans have some college credits, but no degree – and others will need to add a credential to the degree they possess, while others will welcome shorter term programs that get them back to work more quickly.”

According to LeBlanc, college students should have the ability to begin a program of learning on any day of the calendar year. They should be able to move at their own pace and pause if and when they need to. They should be able to attain their learning from any source as long as they can demonstrate their learning and it can be “rigorously assessed.”

Lastly, financial aid should fund a wider range of programs offering a “wider array of credentials from a wider array of providers.” Colleges don’t need to reinvent the wheel to do this. Schools like SNHU can serve as a model. Or, for more on the topic of competency education and how K-20 schools go about implementing it, check out this MultiBriefs Exclusive from late 2019 that I authored.