A Catalyst for Change: Why the Carnegie Unit Needs to Go

Developed during an era that was more assembly line than student-centered in delivery, the Carnegie Unit is a traditional but increasingly irrelevant way to organize student and teacher learning in education systems.

In fact, Andrew Carnegie himself was an American industrialist, and in the early 20th Century, he established the Carnegie Unit as a pension system for college professors. To qualify, education institutions had to abide by certain standards on courses, facilities, staffing and admission requirements. The Carnegie Unit became the basic unit of measurement for determining students’ readiness and progress through an acceptable program of study.

The Carnegie Foundation recently launched a study to revisit the role, function and uses of the Carnegie Unit. It’s also one of the key recommendations for change as Alberta undergoes its high school redesign process. Flexible blocks of learning time, credit recovery options, project-based coursework and teacher advisory groupings are some of the features of high schools involved in the province’s ongoing redesign process.

In 2008, Alberta’s High School Flexibility Enhancement Pilot Project had participating schools abandon the Carnegie Unit and adopt a flexible timetable. Four years later, participating schools had become more student and outcome-centered, and teachers were working more collaboratively.

Removing the Carnegie Unit isn’t a single solution that automatically results in positive change. As researchers found in Highly Adaptive Learning Systems: Research in Seven Redesigned High Schools in Alberta, when teaching and learning decisions are guided by student learning instead of expected time in the classroom, it unravels other practices connected to the Carnegie-era time structure. It becomes a catalyst for developing a trusting learning system that supports growth and student success. Teachers had more opportunity to effectively collaborate. They were surprised and mostly unaware that so many organizational structures, practices and decisions within a high school are connected to the Carnegie Unit. Assessment, attendance and even completion rates are among the changes for the better. High schools began questioning taken for granted processes and structures as they redesign their learning and teaching to better suit students.

Removing the Carnegie Unit is among the findings of Highly Adaptive Learning Systems: Research in Seven Redesigned High Schools in Alberta. However, it’s important to note although it’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. Schools in this study used the removal of the 25-hour per credit requirement as an opportunity to revisit and improve upon the structures, pedagogies and relationships between all players in the education system.

 

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