John Dewey Is Rolling Over in His Grave

About one thousand words stand between me and the end of this term. My deadline, tomorrow at noon, is slowly creeping toward me as indulging distractions becomes a tougher sell. Meanwhile, I'm also sick -- sore throat, achy body, and fever. 

Nothing can get me down, though, because earlier today I submitted the paper that I've spent many hours and many late nights on. Below is a short excerpt of the 3,229 words I submitted as my final paper (50% of my grade) in my History of School Reform class. The topic of my essay is The Carnegie Unit and the negative consequences that stem from it -- and why Oregon ought to adopt a different model of measuring educational attainment.

The Carnegie Unit is an accomplice in the masking of profound, startling inequality in the American education system. The deeply embedded aspects of education in the United States, what Tyack and Cuban call the “grammar of schooling,” have created an illusion that the student experience in the United States system of education is relatively consistent (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). The Carnegie Unit is a critical piece of this illusion, a central actor in the “common script” of American schooling (Metz, 1989). By measuring educational attainment using time spent sitting in a classroom rather than demonstrated student learning, the American education system has done the improbable: it has balanced social access and preserved social advantage by providing formal equality and producing substantive inequality (Labaree, 2012). Every student who graduates from high school in America has received the necessary allotment of credits, based on the Carnegie Unit. The amassment of credits, however, has no direct relation to a given student’s academic or intellectual capabilities, nor to the amount of learning the student has achieved throughout their academic career. Not all high school graduates, after all, are equal – despite the fact that they have sat in school for a similar number of hours. In effect, this means that a student who has a thorough understanding of each of the required academic subject areas may not be awarded a high school diploma simply because the student did not spend enough time in class. Conversely, a student who lacks understanding in the core subject areas and has not demonstrated proficiency or even growth could be awarded a diploma for simply showing up. Somewhere, John Dewey is rolling over in his grave. 

It is critical to examine who is rewarded, or perhaps more importantly, who is disadvantaged, in a system that rewards showing up over learning, competency, and quality of output. The “winners” in this system are students with steady home lives, engaged parents, and a reliable method for getting to school every day. The “losers” in this system do not enjoy the same conditions; any student that needs to earn money for their family, or is responsible for taking care of younger siblings, or who lives in a neighborhood where walking or biking to school is not a safe option is at a significant disadvantage. Showing up every day and receiving the minimum number of instructional hours is harder for those students. Students with learning disabilities or special needs are also disadvantaged. While showing up and sitting down might be an easy task for some students, it can be a nearly impossible hurdle for others. What is perhaps most troubling is that many of these descriptions and conditions about which students benefit and which students are harmed cut along racial and socioeconomic lines: middle and upper class and white students are advantaged, while low income students and students of color are disadvantaged. 

While it is true that student attendance at school is strongly correlated to student learning, it is also true that chronic absenteeism is significantly more likely in low income communities and communities of color (Jacob and Lovett, 2017). Undoubtedly, school attendance should be prioritized and encouraged, because we know it will benefit students and likely contribute to positive outcomes. However, our system should not unnecessarily force disadvantaged students to jump over two hurdles: mastering the content and showing up to school regardless of their social context. In many cases, the latter may actually be more challenging than the former, but in all cases the former is more important than the latter. Showing up to school should be emphasized only insofar as it contributes to student learning, not as an end in and of itself. The Carnegie Unit makes acknowledging this simple fact impossible at the system level, further disadvantaging underserved communities. The perpetuation and further entrenchment of inequitable outcomes by the Carnegie Unit demands another approach.