Saying goodbye to classroom seat time …

In 1993, the Carnegie Foundation’s then-president, Ernest Boyer, pointed out the dysfunctional impact of the traditional Carnegie Unit in that it tended to fragment the learning experience and emphasize seat time over the development of real competencies. Boyer stated, “I am convinced the time has come once and for all to bury the old Carnegie Unit. Further, since the foundation I now head created this academic measurement a century ago, I feel authorized this morning to officially declare the Carnegie Unit obsolete.”

Twenty years later and the Carnegie Unit is still alive and well in Washington schools, with one high school credit equal to 150 hours of planned instructional activities approved by the district. Students in the school district where I teach must earn 23 of these units for graduation, along with successful completion of state testing requirements, a culminating project, and development of a high school and beyond plan.

But Washington is one of 34 states that also have proficiency-based credit policies that provide students with ways other than classroom-based instruction to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. These policies may help students accelerate their education, move on to more appropriate levels of learning, or recover missing credits. Whatever one’s opinion about our newly adopted Common Core State Standards, one implication is that the stage has been set to finally get rid of old seat time-based measures of student achievement in favor of a more competency-based approach.

This is good news. There are already many innovative ways for students to make progress toward high school graduation in our state, and the demise of the Carnegie Unit system will certainly pave the way for more to come. And if we don’t let ourselves become too rigid in our implementation of the core standards, we may eventually see students actually designing their own programs and determining their own graduation criteria in collaboration with teachers, parents, and other community partners. One can imagine each student having their own graduation “team” to help them plan and navigate their way through this very personalized process which may or may not include the accumulation of credits at all. As Boyer implied, there are many ways to assess competency which don’t have to be translated into traditional course credits.

While the full realization of these changes will take time, one area where we cannot afford to delay is in Special Education. Many students with severe learning, cognitive, and developmental disabilities are not able to meet Common Core State Standards. They need qualitatively different learning experiences to reach their full capacity as capable, connected, and contributing members of their community.

And yet these students are still being asked to meet standard state graduation requirements, including state testing and the earning of academic credits. It is usually easy for students to earn these credits in the context of separate special education classes, but at what price to their learning and growth? And if a student has the courage to stretch themselves by taking a higher level course, they risk failing to earn a credit necessary for them to graduate with their classmates.

Would we rather students with disabilities (or any students for that matter) play it safe and only take those classes that will guarantee them an academic credit? Or should we be encouraging them to test their limitations and risk pursuing their interests and passions, even if it means a failing grade here and there? Isn’t there more real learning in excellent failure than in mediocre success?

Traditional high school credits based on seat time are on the way out. Federal law — and common sense — mandates that students with disabilities be able to individualize their learning experiences and graduation plans. We must demand competency-based measures of progress for these students, but competencies and graduation criteria which have been collaboratively determined by their Individualized Education Plan team — competencies which make it possible for them to find their unique place in the life of our larger community. And these may have absolutely nothing to do with seat time or earning credits or passing state tests.

Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

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