Don’t Capitulate To The Credit Hour, Recreate It

Earlier this year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a report titled “The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape.” Chris Sturgis of CompetencyWorks reacted quickly by authoring two fantastic blogs that analyze and criticize the report’s defensive and reactionary take on the Carnegie unit.

Sturgis’s remarks are on point. Given that it’s been a month since the report appeared, I didn’t want to rehash her thorough criticisms, but instead add the below points to the conversation, particularly as they relate to competency-based approaches in K–12 education.

The result of a two-year study, the report examines the history of the century-old Carnegie Unit and its impact on education reform in K–12 and higher education. Although the authors acknowledge that time is not necessarily the best metric for learning, the report grasps continuously at the virtues of the credit hour. As Sturgis aptly pointed out, the paper seems to ignore that the Carnegie unit is—like Carnegie’s very own steel mills and library buildings—manmade. Instead, it treats this artifact as something of an inevitability in a functioning education system. Indeed, the authors are correct that entire systems for funding, tracking, and measuring attendance are tied to the Carnegie Unit. Yet this does not mean that, as is alluded to throughout, the credit hour ought to maintain a life of its own. The researchers also take pains to insist that the Carnegie Unit grounds certain normative values—particularly equity—that are central to American values. Yet, they rarely pause to consider that the credit hour has only been a background condition as those norms have evolved: it is not necessarily the lever making equity possible, but instead a firmly fixed feature of a system that has begun to care deeply about equity only in recent decades.

Still, the report did get me thinking about the role that the credit hour stands to play in the future. I hope that as the Carnegie Foundation continues to wrestle with this work, it invests time in tackling a far more interesting and urgent question on the horizon: how should we measure time within emerging competency-based systems?

Often when I talk about competency-based education, I fall into a semantic trap that persists in many attempts to describe the phenomenon: I contrast competency-based systems with time-based systems. The comparison makes sense in that competency supplants credit hours as the key metric in a system in which students advance based on mastery rather than seat time. But by contrasting competency and time, I think we oversimplify a basic reality: in practice, teachers and students within competency-based schools are still experiencing time in their day-to-day lives. And teachers and administrators in these contexts are still stewards of instructional time, as they try to ensure that students develop and evolve over time. How that time gets used, then, remains of vital importance.

The real hope in a competency-based system is that instructional time is being used in new ways that allow students to learn in a more flexible or personalized manner. There are at least three major ways that policymakers and practitioners in competency-based systems are rethinkingnot rejecting—time.

First, the concept of minimum pace has emerged as one policy to ensure that students are not falling behind within the bounds of a competency-based system. The basic idea is that although students advancing upon mastery will inevitably move through material at different paces, there is a minimum pace at which students need to progress in order to remain on track to graduate. Taken too literally, I worry that minimum pace policies either replicate the ills of the credit hour or create a perverse incentive to only address learning targets in a shallow manner so as to maintain a given speed. But in another light, minimum pace may be of vital importance to an accountability framework that allows for competency-based progressions to flourish while still holding schools to the job of educating all students. In this sense, the minimum pace conversation begs for a rethinking of the credit hour as a realistic (and perhaps variable) benchmark of where we think students should be on the road to being prepared and inspired to achieve their most ambitious dreams and plans, rather than simply a record keeping of hours and minutes in class.

Second, I wonder if in competency-based systems a new credit hour is not a fixed number but rather something of a ratio that actually charts time (inputs) to learning or mastery (outcomes). Rather than being fixed, then, the credit hour becomes a more accurate metric of the quality of instructional hours and of the time-based inputs different students need in order to reach particular outcomes. Such a ratio may be different for different students, subjects, or circumstances, but would help provide realistic timeframes in which students might be expected to master material in a given learning progression.

Finally, the reality on the ground is that scheduling in a competency-based system can prove to be a total nightmare. Few tools are designed to shuffle students in and out of courses based on individual performance. Innovations in scheduling—be it tools or pedagogical approaches—will be one way that more schools can organize time around competency rather than around cohort-based courses measured in credit hours.

These are just three time-related challenges that competency-based schools face. The Carnegie Foundation could be an important player in ushering in new criteria for what effective use of time looks like in these new paradigms. Rather than capitulate to historical forces, the Foundation has the opportunity to revise the credit hour’s legacy moving forward. Let’s hope it embraces this opportunity.

– Julia Freeland

This first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute. Julia Freeland’s latest piece for Education Next is “New Hampshire’s Journey Toward Competency-Based Education.


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