Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

25 November 2013

Quantifying Learning: Alternatives to the Carnegie Unit

In 1905, Andrew Carnegie was seeking "ways to improve the economic standing of college professors and the provisions for their financial security in old age" (ref here). In consultation with the president of MIT, he created a free pension fund for college professors. Of course, many colleges and universities were eager to participate in a free benefit of such value. So the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which administered the pension, had to set standards for qualification. Among the requirements was that institutions would use the "standard unit" when evaluating high school transcripts for student admission.
The standard unit was created by Charles W. Eliot at Harvard University. Essentially, it measures the number of contact-hours between student and professor. The unit used by the Carnegie Foundation represented 120 hours of class or contact time over the course of a year at the high school level. This is now known as the Carnegie Unit and remains the primary way of measuring achievement in U.S. high schools. On the heels of that, Morris L. Cooke (also with support from the Carnegie Foundation) established the collegiate Student Hour as one hour of lecture, lab work, or recitation per week for a single semester. Today we usually call these "Credit Hours."
Seat time measures like Carnegie Units and Credit Hours are only proxies for actual student learning. Adding class grades to the measure is an attempt to increase their reliability. But there are two problems with this. First, grades are not necessarily a good indicator of actual learning. Anyone who has been through school knows that their best grades aren't necessarily in the classes where they learned the most.
Second, grades reinforce the industrial era notion of school as a sorting device. We send thousands of different students through the same learning experience and then grade their performance. Based on those grades, society decides who is qualified for college and a professional career, who should go into service industries, manual labor, and, perhaps, who will be our criminals.
School doesn't have to sort so viciously. A growing body of evidence indicates that by personalizing learning a majority of students can achieve readiness for college and professional careers. That's important because with automation and offshoring, the number of unskilled jobs in the U.S. is diminishing. But with teacher compensation, student evaluation, school budgets, admissions, financial aid, and pension plans all tied to seat time measures, the environment hasn't been conducive to personalization.
Recognizing this, the Carnegie Foundation recently set out on a year-long quest to seek better ways to measure student learning. The result should be a measure based on competency, not time. The results of their study are due in 2014. In the meantime, here are some of the alternatives already emerging:

Challenges and Waivers

This is an effective interim solution. Alabama and Michigan have Seat Time Waiver policies for high school credit. If students can show mastery of a topic, they are granted credit for the course without regardless of how much time they spent studying or in class. The Ohio Credit Flexibility Plan allows students to earn high school credit by demonstrating competency, completing classroom instruction or a combination of the two. The College-Level Examination Program and similar programs allow college students to obtain credit by demonstrating knowledge on a standardized test. Many universities also allow students to take challenge or exemption exams.
Notably, all of these programs convert demonstrations of competence into seat-time units or waivers thereof. The Carnegie Unit and Credit Hour as measures of learning remain intact. These options represent a transition rather than a new solution.

Merit Badges

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts award badges when youths demonstrate skills like First Aid, Knot-Tying, Swimming or Computer Programming. Patches are earned by attending events. Scouting organizations borrowed the badging concept from centuries of military tradition. Education badges are based on this model. Organizations like UC-Davis and Khan Academy have badging systems. The Mozilla Open Badges project is an effort to create a universal format and exchange for badges of all types. They've signed up a diverse variety of organizations and institutions including colleges and universities, MOOCs, professional training companies, the Smithsonian museums and more.

Competency-Based Schools

Western Governor's University substitutes "Competency Units" for credit hours. Students receive credit when they prove competency. This lets student get credit for prior knowledge and also lets them progress through the course materials as quickly or slowly as they choose.
New Hampshire is initiating a statewide redesign of high school education that will be based on demonstrations of competency. In a similar vein, the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) is working to help schools develop a performance-based system for earning credit. Among their members are the Adams County School District in Colorado and the Chugach School District in Alaska.


Professional certification programs like MCSE or CCNA specify a set of competencies and a way to demonstrate the associated skills. Individuals seeking a credential can choose the path that suits them – reading a book, attending a class, watching videos, or an online course. Once competencies have been specified, it's possible to separate the learning of a skill from demonstration of that skill. When learning and credentialing are unbundled it's possible to compare different learning methods to see which is more effective. And different students can choose methods that are better suited to their current needs, market positioning or student body. 

Making Success the Only Option

An oft-repeated phrase among competency advocates is that grades should be "A, B, and 'still working on it.'" This necessitates flexibility on the part of the teachers and the school to meet the needs of each individual student. To do this in a conventional classroom takes more time and energy than should reasonably be asked of a teacher. Among the best ways to apply technology in education is to expand teacher's capacity to personalize education and spend more time one-on-one with students.
The other source of capacity is the students themselves. In the long run, our goal is to train students to be self-learners. If the right resources are offered, students can adapt the learning experience to match their own needs.


  1. [Re: An oft-repeated phrase among competency advocates is that grades should be "A, B, and 'still working on it.'"]

    I'm glad that my undergraduate experience was at WPI in the mid-80s under the WPI PLAN when course grades were Acceptable with Distinction (AD), Acceptable (AC), and No Record (NR). WPI had (and still has) seven week terms. The fast pace terms teach students to manage time, change the stakes, and provide a tighter feedback loop than the typical semester. Graduation requirements included three significant projects and a final Competency Exam (COMP), in which students had to prove they had acquired the knowledge and skills in their major...and defend it in front of a board of three professors.

    In the late 1980s, WPI dropped the COMP and adopted an A, B, C, NR grading system, which I think was a step backwards. However, they kept the NR (the 'still working on it,') and the projects. The most important of the innovations that WPI adopted with "the PLAN" in the 1970s changed the focus from seat time to competency.

  2. Abandonment of the Carnegie Unit as proxy for student learning requires a shift from a factory model where time is the constant and competence the variable to one where competence is the constant and time the variable [1]. It would seem that abandonment of the Carnegie Unit and the embracing of competency-based models ultimately requires that we leave behind a second notion of “grade” as the positioning of the individual student in terms of his or her progress on a time-based factory model assembly line. Even our coveted competency frameworks peg what should be known (or be tackled in the classroom) at specific time-based intervals on the assembly line. If time is no longer the constant, then phrases like “I am in the 7th grade” become nonsensical since it is quite likely that I am at different levels of competence in different “subjects” (another suspect term) at any point in time. The current factory model is absolutely dependent on such variance to enable what you identify, Brandt, as the systems “sorting” function--to determine who wins whatever prize and who loses.

    [1] See Bramante & Colby, “Off the Clock” - ISBN: 978-1-4522-1731-4 - for a discussion of the early experience in New Hampshire's experiment.

  3. Thanks, Jim and Stuart, for your examples. I like the "AD", "AC", "NR" system at WPI. Too bad they reverted to the more-conventional letters. I look forward to reading _Off the Clock_. It looks fascinating.

    Part of the point you're both making is that competency-based education isn't a new idea. I'm hopeful that we've reached the point where tools and culture may be ready to make it more common.