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TitleThe Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing
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Page 1

BY ELENA SILVA , TAYLOR WHITE, AND THOMAS TOCH

THE CARNEGIE UNIT
A CENTURY ‐OLD STANDARD IN A CHANGING EDUCATION LANDSCAPE

JANUARY 2015

Page 2

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
51 Vista Lane
Stanford, California 94305
650-566-5100

www.carnegiefoundation.org

Carnegie’s community college work is supported by the Foundation’s endowment
and by Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and Lumina
Foundation.

Carnegie Foundation is committed to developing networks of ideas, individuals,
and institutions to advance teaching and learning. We join together scholars,
practitioners, and designers in new ways to solve problems of educational
practice. Toward this end, we work to integrate the discipline of improvement
science into education with the goal of accelerating the field’s capacity to learn
to improve.

© 2015 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial
3.0 Unported License. (CC BY-NC)

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CARNEGIE FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TEACHING

THE CARNEGIE UNIT

26

an insurmountable barrier here, either. Capella,
SNHU, and other higher education institutions
using competency models have complied with
federal requirements by supplementing, rather
than supplanting, traditional student transcripts.
“There have been compromises,” says SNHU
president Paul LeBlanc. “We map competencies
back to credit hour equivalencies so we can pro-
duce a [traditional] transcript. We are bowing to
the reality of the world and how it sees education.
A list of competencies and whether they master
them isn’t enough. So we have a family of com-
petencies that in their weight and rigor match the
credit hour.”61

Indeed, dual reporting systems of the sort
LeBlanc describes have become increasingly com-
mon among competency-based institutions in
both K-12 and higher education as a way of cir-
cumnavigating the Carnegie Unit.62 Students in
Northern Arizona University’s competency-based
bachelor’s programs, for example, now receive
two transcripts, one traditional and one compe-
tency-based, as well as optional training on how
to share the competency-based version with po-
tential employers.63 And Massabesic High School
in Maine’s Regional School Unit 57, just west of
Portland, uses standards-based report cards to
provide qualitative information about student
learning, but supplements that information with
grades expressed in percentages, a format more fa-
miliar to parents.64

But personalizing the pace of instruction pres-
ents challenges beyond reporting that would have
to be overcome if the Carnegie Unit were elimi-
nated. One potential problem is that competency
models may privilege some students over others.
The widespread adoption of move-on-when-ready
systems could speed the progress of more accom-
plished and affluent students (who tend to have
many out-of-school learning experiences and are
often tutored over academic hurdles), while their

peers are left to struggle and possibly fall further
behind.

In Colorado’s Adams 50 district, students have
not yet begun to move at dramatically different
paces under the district’s new system of group-
ing students by performance level rather than age.
But officials there say they’re concerned about
the potential of widening achievement gaps and
social challenges as some students outpace their
same-aged peers while others languish in courses
they cannot pass. The prospect of eight-year-olds
in Algebra II or eighteen-year-olds in eighth grade
reading are significant concerns for teachers, stu-
dents, and parents. The last thing they want, they
say, is to introduce a strategy that ends up hurting
the very students it’s intended to help.

Competency-based models also present in-
structional challenges. To give struggling students
the support they need under competency sys-
tems—to take advantage of the additional time
to learn that move-on-when-ready models af-
ford—teachers in traditional classrooms must be
able to differentiate instruction to a greater degree
than has been possible in the past. That’s a sig-
nificant hurdle, given that teachers already rank
differentiation among their greatest professional
challenges. And given that schools in low-income
areas tend to have higher percentages of less-ex-
perienced teachers, the instructional demands of
competency models are likely to compound the
challenge of ensuring that competency-based sys-
tems don’t exacerbate opportunity gaps between
groups of students. In online instructional set-
tings where there is often less teacher support,
the prospect of instructional disparities is even
greater. At the same time, competency models, by
focusing students on the acquisition of discrete
skills, may make it more difficult to promote in-
ter-disciplinary teaching, collaborative learning,
and other instructional strategies that the latest
research in learning science encourages—and the

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CARNEGIE FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TEACHING

THE CARNEGIE UNIT

27

deeper, integrative learning that flows from those
instructional strategies.

Higher education institutions are grappling
with how best to support struggling students.
Critics of competency-based programs like those
offered online at Western Governors University
(WGU), for example, say the use of coaches and
mentors rather than traditional faculty to support
students saves money and is
fine for highly motivated stu-
dents, but that the model is
insufficient for students who
need more support. Student
reviews of WGU tend to
praise its convenience and
flexibility, but suggest that
the design requires a high
level of student initiative and
persistence.65

Portmont College, an
online non-profit branch of
Mount St. Mary’s College
in Los Angeles, organizes its
online students into small
cohorts, each led by a team of
“success coaches” and a men-
tor. The model is designed
specifically for students that
“haven’t had good experiences with traditional
institutions,” says Srikant Vasan, Portmont’s
founder and president. “They need a design that
gives them support, social and emotional sup-
port and learning support, if they are going to
succeed.”66

But such supports are expensive. Portmont
has relied on grants from the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation and other philanthropies to
fund its extensive student services. Lacking these
academic and social supports, it is unclear whether
online competency programs can produce hoped-
for cost savings for students without sacrificing
achievement.

Like Boston Day and Evening Academy,
many schools at the forefront of the competency
movement in K-12 education focus on over-aged,
under-credited students—students who often re-
quire extensive support. Boston Day and Evening
provides round-the-clock course offerings, ample
remediation opportunities, intensive post-sec-
ondary advising, and counseling for its homeless

and other high-risk students.
Paying for these timely, in-
dividualized supports has
required BDEA to raise
money above and beyond
its funding from the Boston
school system.

And there’s no guaran-
tee that higher education
institutions will accept K-12
competencies, or that gradu-
ate programs will accept
competencies from under-
graduates. “Can we expect
faculty to accept a badge or
an assessment of competen-
cy as a basis for admission
to graduate study?” asks
John Ebersole, president
of Excelsior College, one

of the nation’s first competency-based colleges.
“Experience suggests not.”67

Ultimately, the quality of competency-based
programs rests with the rigor of their assessments,
many of which are administered online. There is
an immense amount of engineering effort going
into the development of high quality competency-
based programs. But absent ways of making the
quality of the competencies transparent through
rigorous, externally validated assessments, com-
petency systems must rely on individual teacher
or professor judgment. In those instances, there
are no guarantees that the quality of instruction
or the level of learning are any higher than under

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.

Page 55

Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
51 Vista Lane
Stanford, California 94305
650-566-5100

www.carnegiefoundation.org

This project was conducted with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation. While we’re grateful for the foundation’s support, the statements
made and views expressed in the report are those of the authors alone.


Carnegie Foundation is committed to developing networks of ideas, individuals,
and institutions to advance teaching and learning. We join together scholars,
practitioners, and designers in new ways to solve problems of educational
practice. Toward this end, we work to integrate the discipline of improvement
science into education with the goal of accelerating the field’s capacity to learn
to improve.

© 2015 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial
3.0 Unported License. (CC BY-NC)

Page 56

BY ELENA SILVA , TAYLOR WHITE, AND THOMAS TOCH

THE CARNEGIE UNIT
A CENTURY ‐OLD STANDARD IN A CHANGING EDUCATION LANDSCAPE

JANUARY 2015

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