At the end of last month, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released its study of alternatives to the credit hour: “The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape.”
The “credit hour” is the standard unit of measurement of college credit; a 3-credit hour class meets three hours a week for a semester. And 120 credit hours is the Kansas minimum for a bachelor's degree.
Education reformers have been dismissing this credit hour as a count of “mere seat time.”
Veteran teachers respond to this insult by pointing out that any student who merely sits in class will have to take the class again-and-again until they demonstrate they have learned.
For-profit online “schools” blame the credit hour for requiring “...consistent amounts of student-teacher contact...” and argue that “...it discourages more flexible educational designs.”
But careful study of the proposed competency-based models --- that in many instances merely replace education with an examination --- did not confirm these charges.
In the words of the report: “...the Carnegie Unit plays a vital administrative function in education, organizing the work of students and faculty in a vast array of schools and colleges. It provides a common currency that makes possible innumerable exchanges and interconnections among institutions. And it continues to provide a valuable opportunity-to-learn standard for students in both higher education and K-12 education, where inequitable resources and variable quality are more the rule than the exception. The Carnegie Foundation established the Carnegie Unit over a century ago as a rough gauge of student readiness for college-level academics. It sought to standardize students’ exposure to subject material by ensuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time. 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. Many current indictments of the Carnegie Unit as a poor proxy for the quality of student learning ignore this important distinction.”
This new study found that efforts to reform education are “...unimpeded by the Carnegie Unit.”
An important part of the study was a comparison with the decade-long effort known as the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) that attempts to provide a common degree structure across 47 European countries serving almost 36 million students. After attempting to define core learning outcomes for each degree level across all disciplines in order to “...reflect roughly the same level of learning across countries,” the EHEA finally concluded that “...using credit as an outcomes measure was impractical” and “moved to awarding credit by workload alone” — a return to the credit hour concept.
The Carnegie study pointed to many problems with “competency-based models,” noting that it began as an industry-based simplification to define job-related skills, and “it is easier, for example, to define the skills needed to be a brick mason than those needed to be a genetic counselor.” In many cases the model is no different from “performance-based” models designed for online learning.
And “competency models, by focusing students on the acquisition of discrete skills, may make it more difficult to promote inter-disciplinary teaching, collaborative learning, and other instructional strategies that the latest research in learning science encourages—and the deeper, integrative learning that flows from those instructional strategies.”
Perhaps this report will take the steam out of efforts to award credit for “life skills” for which there has been no measure of learning — a practice I have often called “credit for breathing.” It certainly validates the criticism by the military of the high school “diploma” awarded by GED and online high schools. Military data show that the seat time of actual high school attendance provides a substantial increase in the work habits, showing up, and carry through required to survive boot camp. The growing tendency for some tech schools, community colleges and universities to move classwork to internet correspondence under the competency-based model finds no justification in this report.