Credit Hours Are a Relic of the Past. How States Must Disrupt High School — Now

A new set of building blocks, laid by state leaders, will allow students to receive the high school education they need in the modern world.

By Russlynn Ali , Timothy F.C. Knowles

By Russlynn Ali & Timothy F.C. Knowles

This article was produced in partnership with The 74, and appeared on that website.

In 1906, the Carnegie Unit, or credit hour, was introduced to standardize U.S. public education. It defined the precise number of minutes students needed to learn a particular subject and the number of “credit hours” required to earn a high school or college degree. To be sure, at the dawn of the 20th century, this served an important purpose — standardizing an entirely unstandardized education system. 

Today, the Carnegie Unit has infiltrated almost every aspect of American schooling. It defines how many minutes one must sit at a desk in a classroom or in front of a digital platform to learn. It shapes how schools and teaching are organized. It determines what is and is not assessed. It defines graduation requirements and dictates how schools are accredited. And it prescribes what goes on a transcript and influences who receives financial aid. In essence, the Carnegie Unit isn’t just hard-wired into the system; it is the system. And that needs to change.

For students, this model of schooling exacts a heavy toll. Young people consistently report feeling they are in an intellectual straitjacket: given schedules, told what classes to take, stuck in rows of desks, handed textbooks that lack relevance to study subjects that are disconnected from the skills they need to succeed. For many students, school isn’t engaging or inspiring — it is something to endure.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Students Deserve Better

The overwhelming majority of American high schools are organized in lock step around the Carnegie Unit. Yet less than half of U.S. high school graduates are ready for college or a career. Thus most young people start their adult lives behind and will have to spend some, if not all, of their time trying to catch up. 

The consequences of this reality — precipitous decline of economic mobility — are unambiguous. For Americans born in 1980, just 50% earned more than their parents, compared to 90% for those born in 1940, according to research by Harvard University Professor Raj Chetty. The “American Dream” is more of a reality in Canada, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

Compounding these challenges is the unprecedented, painful disruption of COVID. The most recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the long-term trend analysis for 13-year-olds — gave us a window into just how much our students fell behind: Reading scores dropped below pre-pandemic levels, and math scores plummeted to where they were three decades ago.

This cohort of students is now entering high school. If there was ever a moment to press for meaningful, lasting transformation, it is now.

High School Is the Fulcrum for Change

When high school learning improves, K-8 is pressed to raise standards to prepare students for more engaging, relevant, rigorous curricula. And post-secondary completion improves as well. Over time, these benefits compound, leading to better learning outcomes for students K-16, stronger communities, increased economic productivity and greater civic engagement.

That’s why the Carnegie Foundation and the XQ Institute have embarked on a partnership to catalyze high schools that develop the rich tapestry of skills students need to succeed in school and life and enable learning to happen anywhere. Put differently, we are intent on building a new educational architecture that shifts the sector to a truly competency-based system and away from time-bound conceptions of what knowledge is and how it is acquired.

A growing number of states and local communities are embarking on this work — establishing competency-based education models, offering flexibility for what counts as “credit” and reimagining how credit is awarded. New Hampshire’s “Learn Everywhere” law empowers students to earn credit wherever the learning occurs. Texas, Missouri and several other states allow schools and systems to request waivers from seat-time mandates. And states like Rhode Island and school systems like Phoenix, Washington, D.C. and Tulsa are designing more rigorous, engaging and relevant models for high school learning.

Learn more about what educators nationwide are doing to rethink high school by subscribing to The XQ Xtra, a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.

A New Architecture for High Schools and Communities

What will it take for all students to receive the high school education they need? We are convinced it requires a new set of building blocks, which together form the foundation of a new educational architecture: 

  • Clear and persuasive learner outcomes; 
  • Well-articulated and specific competencies to guide teaching and learning; 
  • Powerful learning experiences inside and outside of the classroom aligned with those outcomes and competencies; 
  • Much richer models of assessment — rooted around a competency-based student performance framework — that students, parents and educators can use to accelerate learning; 
  • New kinds of transcripts that codify and make legible (to post-secondary schools and employers) what young people know and can do; 
  • Support for aspiring and incumbent teachers to help them enact new roles; and 
  • Designs for schools that are not tethered to minutes spent at a desk but focus on developing the knowledge and skills young people need for success in the 21st century. 

State leaders, in particular, have essential roles to play. Here are three major ways they can reshape the high school landscape:

1. States should incentivize communities to redesign their high schools and invite key stakeholders to be directly engaged. 

In Memphis, a parent named Ginger Spickler saw an XQ billboard inviting communities to enter a high school redesign competition. She called a meeting with dozens of parents, educators, business owners and civic leaders. Together with hundreds of students, they created a blueprint for the school that their community needed. 

The result was Crosstown High, which opened in 2018 and takes a project-based learning approach in all of its classes. The result? More than 95% of its inaugural cohort graduated on time, compared to 80% in the surrounding school system. And its class of 2022 outperformed their peers across Tennessee and the nation in meeting college readiness benchmarks on the ACT in English, reading, math and science. 

To be clear, high school redesign cannot be limited to doing this work one school at a time — nor require creating schools from the ground up. That’s why XQ is partnering with the State of Rhode Island to redesign 64 schools and is working with D.C. Public Schools to expand the high school transformation work system-wide. And it is why Carnegie launched the Learning Leadership Network to engage school systems across the nation.

2. States must catalyze high school learning that is engaging, rigorous, relevant and experiential. 

Young people need learning experiences that are multi-dimensional, project-based, high-interest and relevant to their lives and aspirations. Learning experiences need to be authentic, not made-up school tasks. They should build students’ academic content knowledge as well as other essential skills and competencies, like critical thinking and collaboration, at the same time. And they need to be rigorous, challenging every student both inside and outside the classroom and the traditional school day. 

One method to catalyze these kinds of learning experiences is for states to create innovation grants (what we call “challenges”) for teachers, schools and community organizations. This enables them to plan together and deliver transformative learning experiences that build explicit competencies necessary for success in post-secondary school and the workforce. To provide guidance, XQ and Carnegie are creating a toolkit for educators and curriculum makers that articulates what these new learning experiences should look like. Our goal is to spur both the supply of new curriculum products and demand from students, teachers and families for high school learning that is different and better.

3. States must help change how we assess and credential student learning. 

Traditional math classes today, such as Algebra 1 and geometry, are often taught in monolithic ways. Students who fail a course typically have to repeat it entirely, even if they only struggled on a few topics. That’s a tremendous burden on teachers — and heartbreaking and discouraging for students. 

With badging, courses are broken down into smaller components and designed to align with each student’s personal learning journey. Students have more agency over how their learning is organized and the path they take through content toward mastery. That makes math much more manageable, helps young people grow confidence, and will lead to greater achievement in the long run. 

XQ is building a math badging system with Student Achievement Partners and a network of math pedagogy, assessment, policy and instruction experts. Three states are piloting this effort: Idaho, Illinois and Kentucky, and they’re each doing it differently. 

In Kentucky, badges will align with a traditional Algebra 1 curriculum, allowing students to demonstrate mastery of these concepts at an individualized pace.

In Idaho, badging will help provide an alternative to Algebra 2, giving students the option to take badge courses associated with different programs of study, allowing them to graduate with the particular math skills most important for their college or career of choice.

We are also tackling the urgent need for better, more useful forms of educational assessment. In March, Carnegie announced a partnership with the Educational Testing Service to design, pilot and introduce new tools that reliably measure the essential affective, behavioral and cognitive skills necessary for success in school and the 21st century economy. In essence, the initiative aims to replace many of the assessments that have been in use for decades with a much better and different set of tools. 

With leaders across the nation, we aim to build a blueprint for what it will take to shift away from the Carnegie Unit, engage key stakeholders in school redesign, focus high school learning on essential learner outcomes, prioritize rigorous, project-based learning experiences, and assess performance with smarter, better tools. 

We have more ideas for how to rethink high school. Check out The XQ Xtra, a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.

This article is adapted from “A New Architecture for High School Learning,” State Education Standard (May 2023), published by the National Association of State Boards of Education.