Today, the Carnegie Unit is so serious an impediment to real reform, that is must die. Now. In fact, education reformers have been calling for its demise as far back as 1966. (www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed.../el_196601_hamilton.pdf) We now understand that time in a seat does not necessarily translate to real learning. We know that learning does not occur in neat little boxes. Subject areas need to be integrated so that students can make the necessary connections their 21st Century brains need to be successful in today’s world. In fact, our new Common Core Standards call for social studies and science to be fully integrated with English. Teachers are called to help students learn to be creative thinkers able to synthesize many ideas, access and process massive quantities of information, and utilize technology to communicate and research. Long gone are the days when students simply needed to accumulate facts and knowledge.
Our reliance on the Carnegie Unit impacts how all aspects of high schools are organized. Teacher hiring, scheduling, calendars, assessments, teacher collaboration (or lack thereof), pupil progression, and school management are all much more rigid thanks to this antiquated notion of bodies of knowledge for high school students. The Unit perpetuates schools that were created in the image of Henry Ford’s assembly lines; moving students from one classrooms to the next, where new learning parts are added. It was expected at the dawn of the 1900s that at least a third of students would leave American high schools before completing all academic requirements, and go to work in the factories that schools reflected. That worked well for a little while. But, we no longer have factories where non-completers can compete. All students must be prepared for jobs that do not exist yet, engaging in tasks that we cannot yet imagine.
I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed first-hand, a squashed innovation due to the Carnegie Unit. When I worked in experiential programs, we had to abandon many of our courses because kids had to spend more time in traditional classrooms with teachers certified in particular subject areas. I have seen high schools say no to internship opportunities for their kids because the mentors in these experiences weren’t certified teachers, allowing kids to earn credit for the time spent there. Theatre and music programs are routinely eliminated, even though all the research tells us that these programs do much more than almost anything else to develop 21st Century brain power. It’s time we demand real reform. In order to give birth to the schools we need for today and the future, we must first kill the Carnegie Unit.