How many ‘Carnegie units’ do kids need?

Somehow, in all the discussions I've engaged in over the years, I don't recall running across the "Carnegie unit," until I read the piece we had on our page today from a 20-year teacher, who said in part:

     I am in my 20th year of teaching, and I can tell you that our educational system is not working the way it should, not in South Carolina, not in the nation. We have tried several types of “fixes” that have not worked. We still have an abysmal drop-out rate.
    At fault is the foundation of our system, the Carnegie unit, which was developed in 1906 by the Andrew Carnegie Foundation to “standardize higher education.” To earn a Carnegie unit, the student must be in a classroom for 120 hours. S.C. students must earn 24 of these to graduate from high school….

This teacher is saying, based on her experience, something that I have thought (since my own school days) based on my own intuition: That we place too much emphasis on TIME spent in the classroom, with the widespread assumption that more time is better.

For me, the subject usually comes up in connection with proposals for year-round school, or when we see the school year extended to make sure kids get the holy 180 days in the classroom (which apparently applies to home-schoolers and private schools as well as public). This brings out memories of being bored to death in school as a kid. If my attention hadn't wandered — to reading on past where the class was in the book, or passing notes or pulling pranks or otherwise misbehaving — I would have gone totally nuts. Of course, some of you would say I DID go totally nuts, but that's a matter of opinion. I mean, if you had told me the first day I walked into a class that I would have to spend 120 hours there, the temptation to jump out the window would have been strong.

Whenever I invoke that, and say "Let kids have their summers," someone will tell me that I was not typical, that most kids struggle to retain what they learned the year before and need excessive review, etc. And I grumble and shut up. I know that a lot of things about school (testing, for instance) came easier to me than other kids, and that going on about how bored I often was (when behaving) sounds like bragging. (I say "when behaving" because I don't want to make you think I disliked school; I was frequently able to find it entertaining.)

So it was interesting to see this teacher playing to my own particular prejudice on the subject. I don't know whether she was right, and I'm not terribly impressed that when she asks kids themselves whether they want to go at their own pace — of course they answer in the affirmative; who wouldn't when asked whether they want school personally tailored to them? And while SHE believes she'd have no trouble teaching 20 kids at 20 different levels, I wonder how achievable that is for most teachers (I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it; but then I doubt I could teach).

But I found the piece interesting.

30 thoughts on “How many ‘Carnegie units’ do kids need?

  1. Doug Ross

    I happen to be down in Myrtle Beach today as my daughter’s high school culinary team is competing in a cooking contest.
    Coincidentally, I was thinking that her experience preparing for the competition and the event itself will no doubt prove far more valuable down the road than another two weeks spent reading the Canterbury Tales. Beyond the actual cooking instruction, the experience of working with a team, scheduling time, communicating, etc. will be far more valuable than trying to determine the symbolism of The Great Gatsby or learning how to solve a quadratic equation.
    It still comes down to three things: a motivated student, a supportive family structure, and a good teacher.
    You want to decrease the dropout rate? Start by changing the curriculum. Teach kids to read, write, communicate, think. Stop using the cookie cutter approach. Really, they will survive without Shakespeare. They won’t survive if they can’t read.

  2. Brad Warthen

    OK, I don’t know whether I agree with Doug about the surviving without Shakespeare. (There are certain things educated people in English-speaking societies should at least be familiar with, if only so they can recognize ubiquitous allusions. They should also know what an “allusion” is.)
    But I think he and I are trying to make similar points here.
    And good luck to his daughter in the competition.

  3. KP

    I read the piece, and I don’t know what I think either.
    Maybe dispensing with Carnegie units would be a good idea if you’re talking about teaching skills instead of a body of knowledge. After all, if I can solve a quadratic equation in two weeks where it takes you a year (and that would never happen), why should I sit in the same class?
    But what about the value of exposure to ideas, like you have when you study a body of knowledge, and which you’re not likely to get in a couple of weeks? I took lots of courses in college that I’ve never used to make a living — astronomy, geology, religion, history, philosophy (I would say literature, but I consider that I’ve used that) — but I’m not a bit sorry I took them. They enriched my life, made me interested in the world around me, and are probably the best thing I ever did for myself.
    I don’t think we’ll create an educated citizenry by giving them some set of skills we think they’ll need, and I don’t trust the education system to create the criteria for that. We’re not really educated if we don’t know Shakespeare. And lots of other things a liberal arts education gives you.

  4. Doug Ross

    > We’re not really educated if we don’t know
    According to whose standards? I recall very little about Shakespeare from my high school days yet I have had a successful career and probably read more books than 95% of adults my age. Knowing Shakespeare is no more useful than knowing Star Trek or how to play the harmonica. Some people are interested, most are not.

  5. KP

    “Knowing Shakespeare is no more useful than knowing Star Trek or how to play the harmonica.”
    Uh, not really, Doug. Art is art because it speaks to so many different people no matter when they live or what their circumstances are. That makes it more useful than playing the harmonica.
    Did you intend to address my point? That a liberal arts education teaches a person many things that are not merely useful but inspirational?

  6. Doug Ross

    If you were to survey 1000 adult Americans, how many of them do you think would be able to speak with any degree of substance about Shakespeare? 5? 20? Why do you think that is? So who does Shakespeare speak to?
    My point is that high schools teach Shakespeare because they always have taught Shakespeare and that’s what the teachers learned. But there are very few high school students who can connect with Shakespeare on any level. So what purpose does it serve to teach it?
    My daughter’s senior year high school English class read Canterbury Tales, Macbeth, Beowulf, and Frankenstein. Like most of her classmates, they just got through the material and forgot it the moment the tests were over. The material doesn’t resonate with most students.
    I’m not sure there is any evidence that a liberal arts education has any more value than any other field of study. It all comes down to what interests you and what inspires you. The guys who speak Klingon are no less intelligent than those who can translate Beowulf.

  7. Rich

    A good liberal arts education helps a person get through life! It does not just include literature, but also foreign languages, philosophy, history, social sciences, natural science, and mathematics. A sound liberal arts education protects a well-educated person from the siren songs of religious and political fanatics. It also allows them to consider issues from a variety of informed perspectives.
    Different works of literature will resonate with different people. For Brad, the work of literature that has meant something to him recently is Moby Dick. Melville may not have had much to say to him in his youth, but now that he is middle aged, he has a basis for understanding that escaped him in his callow, inexperienced youth (that would apply to all of us).
    That’s why it’s so important to expose kids to so many different things. The history, philosophy, literature, and science they disdained in their youth may become relevant to their later lives. It doesn’t resonate because young people lack the experience with which to compare it.
    Inspired teachers plant seeds that can germinate many years later and bud into real and enduring interests. But what’s more, a good education is a treasure no one can ever take from you. You become part of what has been called the Great Conversation of Western Civilization.
    You understand where democracy comes from; you know about the noble republican experiment in Rome and her later empire; you vicariously experience the tragedy of Hamlet or of Phedre. You learn to speak some French and may eventually go to France with your spouse and take in the history, culture, and art of a great nation within western civilization. You may remember the sharp philosophical critiques of the Enlightenment. Your understanding of US history allows you to see why secular democratic republicanism has been the wisest choice for our polity that the founders could ever have made.
    I don’t have Shakespeare on my desk right now (although it is in my library). I am re-reading Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique (in French) after a hiatus of almost 25 years. It means more than it ever did when I read it as a young man.
    A good education keeps us from extremism, religious enthusiasm, and blind faith in anything. We come to realize that we are really all we have and that we must make the most of an existence in which we, exclusively among all other beings on the planet, are both sentient and sapient.
    We are a piece of the universe which, after 13.4 billion years, has become self-aware.

  8. p.m.

    Shakespeare’s not my thing, Doug. I’m much more partial to Ray Bradbury, and I love Star Trek, but I have to agree with Rich (I’m agreeing with Rich! I’m agreeing with Rich! I’m agreeing with Rich!)
    Give them Chaucer and Shakespeare and the gamut. The victors may rewrite history, but not the great works of literature. History lives in them, and the how-to of literature, too, to be learned by those who want it, and to bounce off harmlessly those who don’t.

  9. Herb Brasher

    Our oldest daughter had a six-hour, essay exam on Shakespeare in her senior year of English class in her German public high school in Bad Ems/Rheinland-Pfalz. So I guess the moral of that story if the English-speaking world is not familiar with classical works of English literature, we can always depend upon the Europeans and Asians to educate us and think critically for us.
    We are, of course, dead scared that we are going to require too much of our poor little high school students who are being so challenged. After all, they need plenty of time to work at McDonalds so they can finance their new F-150 to drive to school. (I am speaking in general here, I am not referring to Doug.)
    Really, I agree with Rich. Well, almost. He doesn’t really need to fear religious enthusiasm. Some of the best educated and most positively influential men and women in history have been motivated by it.

  10. bud

    I’m with Doug on this one. I don’t see much value in being able to recite Shakespeare. Seems rather arbitrary to me.

  11. bud

    I’m going to take another shot at Brad’s sensibilities to see if he can see the light on the value of libertarian thinking. After being dismissed on my attempt to get Brad to see the light using the homeless shelter in Quail Valley example this is probably a fools errand but hey this is important.
    Ok here’s the deal. Let’s say some government entity deems Shakespeare pornographic. Or better yet Moby Dick. (Could the title be a veiled sexual inuendo). So Brad is now a criminal if he reads one of the banned books. At his trial Brad offers as his defense that he has a right to privacy, free speech, freedom from illegal surveillance or any number of freedoms that he has dismissed out of hand in his previous writings. The jury decides that precident has been set previously in cases that banned medicinal marijuana, right to die laws in Oregon, various pornography laws and the abolition of video poker. The judge agrees with the jury and finds the defendent guilty of the crime of reading and distributing harmful materials that will lead to the decadence of society.
    After all Romeo and Juliet encourage fornication and the defiance of parents. Julius Ceaser glorifies the murder of a national leader and could encourage people to usurp the constitution by promoting killing as a legitimate means of making “Change”. Indeed virtually all Shakespeare writings contain dangerous references to sex, violence and disrespect for authority.
    In the end Brad is condemned to 10 years of forced viewing of Brady Bunch re-runs as a way of cleansing his soul from the evils of Shakespeare.
    Does this sound far-fetched? Hardly. Just recently Harry Potter was considered a form of indoctrination into witchcraft by various wacko religous sects. Throughout our history records, books and movies have been banned. It really doesn’t seem all that far fetched to go down this path to the point where great works of literature are ultimately banned because of some alleged violation of some arbitrary moral code. This suggests that we have a duty to fight any infringement on our personal freedoms whenever the government tries to impose it’s will on the freedom of individuals. It’s a shame Brad doesn’t understand this. But I’ll keep on trying.

  12. Lee Muller

    Fewer people have read the writings of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Linus Pauling, von Mises or Freud than have read Shakespeare, but they have had a tremendous impact on the lives of billions of people.
    Very few people interact directly with the few great intellects who move the progress of civilization. The rest get it trickled down and diluted by teachers and textbooks. Most people with heads full of nonsense don’t even know the original source of their bad ideas, or the good ones they don’t understand.

  13. bud

    Other times, it’s harmful — from preventing us from collecting intelligence regarding terror cells via surveillance to protesting against perfectly reasonable efforts to create smoke-free workplaces.
    Ok, here’s the nub of the problem. That statement is just flat-out wrong. Period. End of story. Why is it wrong? It simply overstates the threat from terroists and ignores the sanctity of freedom. I just do not subscribe to this overblown, hyped, threat from terrorists who live thousands of mile away and who are armed with little more than boxcutters. Statistically these terrorists are nothing more than a minor nuisance. But our cherished freedoms that Brad is so willing to jettison. That is something we need to defend stridently.
    Oh well folks. I tried. Brad doesn’t get it and probably never will. As the editorial page editor of The State that’s kind of scary. We need someone in that capacity to fight for our freedoms, not dismiss them with a cavalier ho-hum. But that’s the way it is I guess.

  14. p.m.

    Now that I’ve read bud’s opinion, I’m wondering whether we have to add the proviso that Shakespeare must be kept away from some people.
    Yet eventually he wandered into a nifty statement of libertarian principle: “We have a duty to fight any infringement on our personal freedoms whenever the government tries to impose it’s will on (them).”
    Yes, he first says he agrees with Doug about Shakespeare, when his longer post proves that he actually doesn’t.
    So there is, er, hope?
    As to bud’s contention, however, that there’s not much value in being able to recite Shakespeare, a few lines from “Macbeth” deal nicely with that:
    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
    To the last syllable of recorded time,
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.
    We would hide this from people in favor of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy?
    And then there’s this nugget of wisdom:
    Glory is like a circle in the water,
    Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,
    Till by broad spreading it disperses to naught.
    And this:
    I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’.
    Methinks Data and Picard even quoted the Bard on “Star Trek: Next Generation.”
    ‘Twould be best we helped our children make the connection.

  15. KP

    Then there’s this, from Richard II:
    Sometimes am I king;
    Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
    And so I am. Then crushing penury
    Persuades me I was better when a king,
    Then am I king’d again, and by and by
    Think that I am unking’d by Bullingbrook,
    And straight am nothing. But what e’er I be,
    Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
    With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d
    With being nothing.

  16. bud

    Yeah, bud, that would be terrible if Shakespeare were criminalized. But it ain’t gonna happen.
    In a country that bans a plant that can alleviate nasuea for cancer victims and help glaucoma patients, condones torture, slaughters civilians with napalm and cluster bombs I wouldn’t be so sure. Brad just doesn’t get it. But one day when something he cherishes is suddenly gone then maybe he’ll have an inkling. But by then there won’t be anyone left to help him fight for his particular freedom.

  17. Doug Ross

    Try standing up in front of a room full of 17-18 years old kids in a college prep class (not AP English) and make them believe that the Richard II quote is meaningful.

  18. Lee Muller

    The way we did it was to have the class perform Shakespeare. Those in the class who were interested played the lead roles, and recited from memory. The lesser students played the lesser parts, and read them if they could not remember the lines.
    There was no AP, or college prep. All 28 of us were in one class.

  19. T

    Lee, that’s the first comment I’ve read by you since I’ve been reading this blog (about 6 months) that I didn’t know was yours by the 10th word.

  20. bud

    Here’s my favorite Shakespeare quote:
    Ye Olde Hokey Pokey
    O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
    Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
    Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
    Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
    Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
    A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
    To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
    Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
    The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
    Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.

  21. Lee Muller

    I don’t think Doug is dismissing Shakespeare as useless, as much as he is trying to make the point that the first priority of schools should be to teach everyone that is capable of learning, the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.
    A school can have all the Shakespeare and classical music, art, and calculus it wants, but if 25% of more of its students are unfit for employment upon graduation, its diplomas are a fraud. And if 25% of them don’t even graduate, it really needs to spend more time baking the cake and less on the icing.
    The really smart children don’t need public schools to learn enough to go any college.

  22. Doug Ross

    Thanks, Lee. You got my point exactly. The world is full of productive people who don’t get Shakespeare but are able to do other things.
    With a dropout rate as bad as it is in South Carolina, we need to look at whether the cookie cutter curriculum that is taught is serving the students. Some kids aren’t interested in literature but if we can get them to be competent readers by teaching material that is more relevant to them then everyone wins.
    You could spend hundreds of hours trying to teach me to play the piano or dance and it’s never going to make a difference.
    We should focus on the skills that make a person productive not specific content that someone decides is “important”.

  23. Lee Muller

    A lot of the “content” in curricula is primarily for the benefit of the teachers, administrators, and consultants.
    Shakespeare and Mozart never attended a day of public school, and few in any school. Einstein was rejected by schools. Thomas Edison taught himself while working on train.
    Society is moved forward by great people like that, but society ( read: lesser men ) is incapable of moving genius. The most it can do is stay out of the way. That applies not just to the greatest, but to the small genius in every successful entrepreneur. There is not a thing the lesser bureaucrat or politician and teach them.

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