The Hypocrisy of the Carnegie Unit

Here’s the thing about the Carnegie Unit — about the whole traditional system of education that’s being challenged right now by proficiency learning:

The Carnegie Unit’s a sham.

Here’s why.  Right now, we pretend to award credit to students based on time.  But there is no meaningful requirement for how much time.  Sure, kids are required to attend high school for four years.  They have to take four years of English, three of math, and three of science — plus a year of phys ed, a year of health, and two of social studies.  But within those big blocks of time, kids are free to be absent as often as they want.  Public schools have no minimum number of days or hours that you must attend.

But what about truant policies?

At anywhere I’ve ever worked, they don’t mean a thing.  Sure, we put strongly worded policies in the handbook, but we don’t follow them.  They’re so hazy and — more often — so flexible that they might as well not exist.  I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in where students who’ve missed whole months of class are leaning on the administration and teachers to let them pass.  Some of this, in the lower grades, is pure social promotion.  But most of it, in high school, comes from a place where real compromise is needed: there is a strong cultural pressure to pass from grade to grade with your peers and to finish high school in four years (even if you are not ready).  No one wants to fall behind or to repeat.  But there is also a chronic attendance problem, especially among low income students.  It comes from illness, from work conflicts (yes), and from family obligations.  Early in my career, I tended to dismiss it.  I don’t miss days — neither should you.  Suck it up.  But the reality is much more nuanced and even heart-breaking.  I need to stay home this week to care for my mom.  My dad left the house and I need to take care of my little brother.  I was sick and we can’t afford to go to the doctor.  I’ve been bullied and don’t want to come to school.  There’s so much more there than meets the eye.  You shouldn’t just swing the axe of truancy and be done with it.

And we can’t anyway.  Public schools, I’ve found, unless they’re willing to risk being seen as unfeeling and harsh (and risking more kids simply giving up and dropping out) really have no recourse.  A kid’s gone for two weeks, comes back and says, “I was sick” and what can you do?  Request a doctor’s note every time, for every kid?  Go to the mat with parents about a kid really being sick the whole time?  (I’ve done that; it’s not pleasant.) What if a kid misses a few classes to go to France on a field trip?  Or to volunteer at the local elementary school?  What are you supposed to do?  Say, “No, you can’t do that”?  Penalize the kid?  What would that make you?

My latest challenge has been “appointments.” Kids will sidle up to you on Day One and inform you, “I will be missing class every Friday” (we only have class two or three times a week, so this is a big miss) “because I’ve got an appointment.” So right there she’s missing 40% of class time.  What are you supposed to do?  She’s not lying.  Most of the time, you quickly understand that her appointment is related to serious emotional challenges, which are often readily apparent.  And you know that these appointments, sometimes quite a distance away, are hard to schedule.  What are you going to do?  Draw the line and say, “No, please miss some other class”?  Draw the line and say, “You’ll pay a serious grade penalty” and then go eight rounds with her irate parents, and your own administration (which, if you work at a halfway progressive and compassionate school, will strongly discourage this sort of attitude on your part)?

No.  Instead you tell her, “Of course.  I understand.  Say no more.  But I will expect you to make up the work.”

But deep down, even if she makes up all “the work,” you know she’s missing a lot.  All of the peer interaction, all of the discussion and debate, all of the off-the-cuff learning, all of the communal creation of knowledge and the chance to be challenged face-to-face.  She’s not there for any of it, and there’s nothing you can do.  The cruel irony of course is that it’s always the students who need this practice the most who have these “appointments” during school time.

And we as a school have no leg to stand on because of all the school that is missed because of commitments from within the school itself.  Once, just once, I would like to hold an English test during a soccer game.  “Sorry, Coach,” the kids would say, “I’d like to play in the championship, but I’ve got to leave early for English class.” My, how the tables would turn!  Both semesters last year, my last period classes were gutted because of sports commitments.  One school I worked at pulled band kids from class biweekly for “sectional” practice.  Others siphon kids off for clubs, projects, concerts, field trips, assemblies (a real challenge for middle school teachers), or meetings with counselors and specialists within the school.  What can you do?

The numbers add up.  Anywhere I’ve taught, it’s not unusual, when you count up not only whole-class absences (which are reported) or partial class absences (which are not) for students to miss more than 15 school days per year, a rate that qualifies under the federal definition of “chronic absenteeism.” That’s 8% of school missed, right there.  It goes higher.  Every year I’ve always got a crop of at least three or four kids who miss about 20% of their classes (roughly 40 school days a year).  That happens more than you’d think.

This effects how you teach.  It’s part of the reason our system is the way it is.  Absences will kill you as a teacher.  It is so much work to get absent kids their materials, particularly if that involves catching them up.  You could sink all your time into keeping track of who is late with what, or who missed what (and often, that’s what happens).  Kids will email, or stop by, and say, “What’d I miss?” and that eats up more time than you’ve got.  They’ll need a list of assignments, materials.  You’ll put it online ahead of time, but they won’t understand what it’s about.  You’ll say, “check with a classmate” but you know that’s not a good system.  You’ll tell them to turn in work within two weeks, but they won’t, and you’ll end up chasing them down.  They’ll sit in class when they return — they couldn’t catch up or do work, after all, they were sick — and look bored because they have no idea what’s going on.  They’ll start chatting, pull people off task.  “You really couldn’t do any work while you were out for two weeks?” you’ll wonder.  But what are you supposed to do?

So you change your approach.  You become conscious, all the time, of incentivizing attendance.  It’s partly from a management standpoint, but it’s also from a “what you value” standpoint.  You know that if kids aren’t in class, they aren’t practicing the skills of discussion.  They aren’t grappling with the content.  They aren’t, most of the time, doing much at all.  It also comes from a place of fairness — namely, fairness to the kids who do show up.  If your policies are too compassionate toward the absent kids, you actually make it more attractive to stay home and make up the test on your own time, in a week when you’re good and ready, than to show up on test day, without extra studying time.  Take a day off, your system tells them, and work on the big essay at home over the weekend.  The kids who come to class on the due date, with their essays done, they’re the suckers.

This is especially a problem with presentations.  Kids will mysteriously be absent on presentation days.  Then they’ll be absent again next class.  Then they’ll come back in a week and a half (I am not even joking; I see this all the time) after you’ve moved onto the next unit, and tell you they’re not ready because they were sick the whole time.  It goes on and on.

That’s not fair to the kids who were there — but in trying to be compassionate people, in trying to recognize that time truly can be a variable, that is the message that we inadvertently send to students.

So you change your grading.  You grade participation.  You grade classwork that cannot be made up.  Sometimes you even come out and grade attendance (I have never done this, but many college classes do).  You know it’s not enlightened to grade compliance, but you also want to send the message that showing up is important. 

After all, isn’t showing up kind of important at, say, any job, ever?

But in the end, no matter what we try to do as educators (and I have tried everything), it is impossible to ensure every student attends every class.  It all comes back to the fact that the Carnegie Unit is a sham.  We have no meaningful requirement of how much time a student must spend in high school. 

If we did have a meaningful seat time requirement, it would say, “You must take four years of English class.  For each year, you must attend at least 90% of your classes.”

But that’s impossible.  How would we enforce that?  And what about the kid who was there, but not there — daydreaming?  What about the kid who disappears to the bathroom to text his girlfriend for 15 minutes every class?  How could you account for this time?

The fact is, time has always been a proxy for learning.  It’s easier to use time as an administrative tool for measuring learning than it is to agree on a system of measurement to actually measure learning.  But even the true use of time as a requirement is almost impossible.  The Carnegie Unit is not a requirement; it is at best a recommendation.  


And so that is why what we’re trying now, this proficiency learning, this experiment, is deeply instructive.  It puts the lie to the old system of time by forcing us to look closely at what it promised to be, and what it really was.

But the new system still must answer to these same challenges.  If anything, kids will be even more inclined to skip now that we are removing the unenlightened practices of yore, like grading compliance and attendance.  Proficiency promises that students will be a) so thrilled with the new ways of teaching (project based learning!  a personalized learning experience!) that they will be chomping at the bit to come to school, and b) so focused on attaining proficiency that they’ll realize on their own that, since it’s all about competency, they’d better show up.  Teachers will be forced to design assessments that you cannot pass if you don’t attend class.  Otherwise, well, to paraphrase a speaker who once chided us for being angry when kids reach for phones, your classes might just be a waste of time.  

Meanwhile we’ll be using the transferable skills to grade all the other compliance-y stuff — like doing the work, and taking responsibility.  Kids will have to prove they have these qualities, or else they won’t be able to graduate.

It’s a good change, an idealistic direction to go in.  But will it work?  I don’t see any way this will make it easier to catch kids up who miss class.  I don’t see any way this fixes the in-class content they miss.  And if anything, the new goal of time being a variable, and of endless re-takes on tests and quizzes only further incentivizes sporadic attendance.  The new goal of flexible pathways does the same thing.  We risk having the same old truancy battles, but fought over in the transferable skills, which risk seeming like fluff if we’re not careful.

The old system was wrong, but it was a solid, time-tested kind of wrong.

Is the new system better?  I’ve worked too long and hard at real, intractable problems embedded in the school system itself to say anything much beyond this:

I’ll believe it when I see it.


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