74 Interview: Time ≠ Learning — Tim Knowles on Scrapping the Carnegie Unit

From credits to seat time to school finance to student engagement, century-old unit of measurement is stifling real education reform and innovation.

This is a photo of Tim Knowles.
Tim Knowles (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching)

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In the early 1900s, the nation’s civic leaders launched a full court press to make secondary education — previously offered to an elite few — available to the many. They compelled communities to build high schools and sought to convince the populace that a diploma was their ticket out of a life of hard labor, as well as society’s chance at unprecedented economic expansion. But how to assess the validity of what was being taught? 

Simultaneously, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie hoped to kick-start the expansion of higher education by donating $10 million to bankroll pensions for college professors. This posed a parallel dilemma: How to decide whether a scholar had put in enough time to earn the annuity?

Thus was born the wonky educational anachronism known as the Carnegie Unit, brainchild of the trustees of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. A certain number of hours spent in a high school classroom added up to a credit, the trustees decided in 1906. A set number of credits earned a diploma. So quantified, the diploma could be used as the entrance ticket to a college or university, where Carnegie Units would add up to a degree — or the right to retire.

Carnegie Units went on to become the central currency of a dizzying number of aspects of education, ranging from what subjects students are exposed to to how states allocate school funds. But it was quickly understood that while the units were good for, say, establishing whether a public school had delivered its pupils enough hours of teaching to earn its taxpayer dollars, it was not particularly helpful at signaling what a student had learned during those hours in class — now, 117 years later, better known as seat time.

Some innovators, like the leaders of the Phoenix Union High School District, are experimenting with ways to leave the Carnegie Unit in the past. Students at PXU City, a Phoenix high school without a building, can create their own personalized educational experience from a menu of 500 options, including classes at any number of high schools, college courses and job training programs throughout the city. 

The experiment came to the attention of Carnegie’s present-day leaders, who are engaged in their own effort to replace their turn-of-the-century units. The person tasked with figuring out how better to quantify what students have learned, and how the schools of the future can help them realize the historical promise of social and economic mobility, is Tim Knowles, the foundation’s president and former director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. 

Knowles recently talked to Beth Hawkins about a pilot project to reimagine seat time that includes the Phoenix district, the possible benefits of freeing teachers from unit-driven bell schedules and how to transform entire school systems. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about the Carnegie Unit, what it is, how it wove itself into education’s very DNA and why it’s time to step away from it. 

In 1906, when the Carnegie Foundation created the Carnegie Unit, it suggested that a college degree should be 120 credits. Today, it’s 120 credits. It’s become the bedrock currency of the educational economy. It’s infiltrated everything. It’s how we organize high schools and universities, how we think about assessment, it’s instrumental to accreditation, to who gets financial aid and who doesn’t. It defines the daily work of teachers and professors. It is the system.

What it is, fundamentally, is the conflation of time and learning. It’s the suggestion that X number of minutes equals learning. The problem is, that it basically ignores everything we’ve learned in the last 100 years about what knowledge is and how it’s acquired. We’ve had neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists and psychologists and learning scientists come along and say, “People learn through solving real problems, they learn from peers, they learn from mentors, they learn in apprenticeship, they learn from experience.”

In its time, the Carnegie Unit was an incredibly important reform because it standardized an utterly nonstandardized educational sector. But it crept into the core DNA of educational practice and didn’t evolve or adapt in the face of a significant amount of empirical knowledge about how human beings actually learn. That’s problem No. 1. 

No. 2 is that it inhibits educational innovation. Competency- or mastery-based education has existed, arguably, since Dewey and Montessori. But it’s existed at the edges. It’s never been central. We can all point to schools that are breaking the boundaries of what learning should look like, how it’s organized, how it’s structured. While those examples exist, they’re often led by extraordinary teachers and school leaders. We haven’t figured out how to take it from the margins to the mainstream. That’s a problem.

The third thing is perhaps more existential, and that is the absence of social and economic mobility in our nation. This is not to suggest that education isn’t an essential solution to addressing social and economic mobility, it’s just that it’s not nearly powerful enough an engine for doing so. The Carnegie Unit is, in my view, partly responsible for that. In the 1950s, over 90% of young people would [end up] better off than their parents. That number is basically cut in half now. We’re going in precisely the opposite direction, and underlying that are some really fundamental inequities, which are exacerbated by race and by class. 

If we want to radically increase economic and social mobility, we need to reimagine what learning is, and really take into consideration what we know about the context in which people learn. Young people need to be engaged in much more experiential, hands-on solving of real problems and applied work. 

Why is the Carnegie Foundation the organization to take this on?

It’s been a narrative in the organization and beyond for decades. One of the questions was, what are you going to do about assessment, because if you are going to take on the future of learning, then you have to be thinking about the future of assessment. That led us in the last year to a deep partnership with ETS, which is the largest assessment company on Earth. It’s very good at determining reliability and validity. 

If we believe that learning, wherever it takes place, is important, then in order for that to take root at scale, we need to persuade parents first that the learning their young people are experiencing outside the schoolhouse is valuable. And is legible to the postsecondary sector if you’re applying to college. And legible to employers if you’re going more directly into the workforce. Everybody intuitively knows there’s enormous amounts of learning there. We need tools that can validate that learning. 

We’re going to build assessments to assess the skills, not the disciplinary knowledge, that we know are predictive of success. Things like your ability to collaborate, to communicate, how hard you work, are you persistent, your creative thinking, your critical thinking. The aim with ETS would be to get to the point where every young person in America doesn’t just graduate from high school with a transcript that has grades and attendance and test scores, but a skills transcript as well.

The wonderful thing about Carnegie, it’s got this incredible responsibility to be a place that looks around the corner. It did that in 1906, for really important reasons. It created Pell grants for really important reasons. It established standards for medical schools, engineering, law schools. It’s done these things at certain times in its history that really needed to happen, because there were gaps. And it’s positioned in a way that it can take a slightly longer-term view about where we need to get.

In Phoenix, a driving factor behind the district’s decision to move away from the Carnegie Unit more quickly and widely than it had planned before the pandemic was teenagers. Students who weren’t in high school when COVID hit had no expectation of a bell schedule. 

At the heart of accelerating learning is ensuring young people are leaning in, are engaged, are inspired and are working on problems that they think are actually useful — whether it’s useful for their own trajectories, pursuing a track that is orienting them to a particular profession or sector, or more here and now. One can learn a great deal about democracy by actually practicing it, or identifying an issue that you care about and learning how civically to engage in a way that can draw attention and potentially movement regarding that issue. 

So, yes, engagement is an instrumental variable in all this, and, as you are pointing out, teenagers have already spoken. We know they’re not engaged. There have been some systems around the country that have made marked improvements in high school completion, but there are many where 50, 60 or 70% of students are biding their time. Getting through. If we’re losing 30 or 40% of our young people before they’ve even had a shot, then we’ve got to take a step back and ask what might work better, what we need to do differently. And that’s not a small incremental step, like providing double blocks in math or high-dosage tutoring. There’s something much more fundamental involved in reconsidering how we think about time and learning. 

The other thing about teenagers is that when you create opportunities which are highly engaging, and you enlist their agency in learning, you really just have to get out of the way. Versus in a set of circumstances that may feel to them far more compliance-oriented, where they’re doing seven periods for 40 minutes or 42 minutes between bells with a two-minute passing period, with seven different teachers every day who may have so many students that they can’t even learn their names until the end of October. If you turn that on its head, young people are going to rise and surprise us. 

‘If we’re losing 30 or 40% of our young people … then we’ve got to take a step back and ask what might work better, what we need to do differently.’

There was a survey of high school students nationally during the pandemic, and almost to a person they said they wanted to come back to school — not surprisingly. But not all of the time. I don’t think that was a statement about not being interested in learning. I think that was a statement about not wanting only that form of learning all the time. Valuing the community that school creates, valuing the fact that there are some domains of expertise and disciplinary areas where they need to be in classrooms with amazing teachers, but also recognizing that, “Wait, I’ve been learning independently. I’ve been pursuing things I’m passionate about.”

If we could scaffold that systematically with opportunities for apprenticeships, for internships, for community embedded work, I think it’s safe to say not only would we be hewing much more closely to what empirical evidence says is the best way to learn, but we would be in a situation where the young people were much, much more interested and excited about what they were learning.

Let’s talk for a second about the obstacle that is adult time. I’ve talked to so many people in education who say, Yeah, that’s great. But we’d have to fundamentally reorganize how the adults use their time.

We would. By saying we’re taking on the Carnegie Unit, we are not saying we’re going to have eight periods a day in 10th grade and then we’re going to layer on a whole other set of things. So how we organize teacher time, and the role of the teacher, has to fundamentally shift. 

But teacher pipeline issues are real. Schools are struggling to find really exceptional people who want to spend their career teaching. Embedded in rethinking the use of adult time is the opportunity to rethink the role of teachers. There are few people who want to have the same responsibilities on the first day of their professional career as they do on the last day of their 35th year. 

If we could turn the teaching profession into something where you’re teaching in teams, for example, or where you may be teaching in the morning and then advising groups of students through the afternoon as they engage in activities in their communities and with postsecondary institutions, the job could become much more attractive and interesting to a much wider range of young people over time. Adult time is a predicament, but it’s also an opportunity.

You mentioned a skills transcript. That got me thinking about how many people you’re dangerous to if you’re successful. So many things are proxies for whether a person has a skill set. The college degree is a proxy: We assume that because you made it through this filter — which might be meaningless — you are going to be valuable to this endeavor, this institution, this company. But we don’t actually know whether you come with the requisite skills.

Right. We’ve had a very fragmented K-12-to-postsecondary-to-employment path, replete with assumptions. If you go to an elite private or highly selective public college, whether by virtue of where it is geographically or by nature of how you get in, there all kinds of assumptions that you’re going to come with these other things that we care about, in addition to whatever’s on your transcript, like your grades and your test scores. But that’s a pretty crude measure of whether you do. So there is a threat to the established pathways. 

‘By saying we’re taking on the Carnegie Unit … how we organize teacher time, and the role of the teacher, has to fundamentally shift.’

We could credibly determine whether a young person has a set of skills wherever those skills were developed. If I’m living on the south side of Chicago, and I take my two siblings to school every morning, and then I get to my high school on time at 7:30, I do my homework, I perform well in the traditional ways, I participate in afterschool activities and I work, those are skills that that are invisible, or less visible than the proxies you were suggesting. Or whether I was lucky enough to be born in a situation where my parents were taking me to rarefied places every summer, or putting me in rarefied summer camps.

Part of the agenda is to make the education sector a more vital engine for individuals, no matter their backgrounds, to be able to succeed in a post-affirmative action world. A skills transcript would provide elite schools with a different kind of visibility on every kid. It wouldn’t have to have anything to do with race per se, but I would hope it would help make visible the skills and dispositions young people bring, even if they’re growing up in really underresourced places. 

Devil’s advocate. When the pandemic forced schools away from seat time, lots of people said, ‘Hey, wait — maybe we could just have asynchronous learning. I wouldn’t have to report to a building anymore.’ Or the variation we’re hearing a lot about now, the four-day week. In blowing up seat time, temporarily or permanently, did states just leave the barn door open?

The conditions under which they blew up seat time during the pandemic are slightly anomalous. I wouldn’t compare what we’re trying to do to that, because we’re certainly not of the view that people should be socialized in front of a laptop. But I’m sympathetic to the accountability side. Whether we have the existing system or a fundamentally transformed one, it’s going to demand that we know how young people are performing.

None of what I’ve been talking about should suggest we no longer believe in algebra or reading. There’s things that we really do think young people benefit from learning. How they learn those things is an open question. If we are in a period where people are questioning the power of our educational system and asking questions about how we might empower it further, it has to be undergirded by accountability systems that are credible. And fair. Otherwise, you’re right. It could be a slippery slope. 

What are you learning so far?

Our agenda, which we’re working in partnership with XQ on, is in short: establish proofs, create places where this is happening, build evidence for improvement. Develop policy and national discussion about transformative learning opportunities. And then think hard about the postsecondary piece. Unless the work we do in high school is relevant, legible and understandable to postsecondary, it could falter. 

There are learnings from the people who’ve been doing this for a long time, sometimes in quiet opposition to the systems in which they sit, sometimes with some support from the state within which they sit. They are there, and it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that there are educators across the country who’ve been doing this with young people from all kinds of different backgrounds.

‘Red and blue, left and right, communities, in spite of all our polarized hype, are saying there are a set of things that we want for young people. That should make us optimistic.’

One of the [trends] in the educational system at the moment are these things called portraits of a graduate or portraits of learners. They’re everywhere. One of the things we did with ETS was look carefully at all the ones that we could. They’re interesting, because they represent an American consensus about what the purpose of schooling is. They are really focused on skills. Often, they’ve been developed with lots of parent voice and teacher voice and student voice. Red and blue, left and right, communities, in spite of all our polarized hype, are saying there are a set of things that we want for young people. That should make us optimistic, if we can leverage that. 

The other things that that you will hear is, A) they haven’t really made a big difference, and B) we have no way of measuring the things in them. The problem is the Carnegie Unit problem. They haven’t cracked the Carnegie Unit, they haven’t cracked this architecture of learning that we’ve established. We have to do that. We want our young people to be able to think critically, and we don’t really know how to measure that. How do we measure that they’re civically involved? 

Disclosure: The XQ Institute, which has partnered with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to explore alternatives to the Carnegie Unit, provides financial support to The 74.

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