I recently had the opportunity to travel to Boston, my first time in Beantown. I truly enjoyed the trip – great people, hospitality and chowder. I was fascinated by the historical significance of the town and the many landmarks. There is something special in honoring the foundation that makes us who we are.
On one of my cab rides I couldn’t help but notice a wrecking crew demolishing some old buildings. It was a sharp contrast to the mental model I had of such an historical city. I trust that those doing the demolition had very good reasons and that the buildings coming down had outlived their purpose. I also trusted that the new plans for the land would no-doubt serve the present and future needs of the people of Boston.
I guess what struck me was the fact that the architects, the builders, the developers who constructed the tear-downs worked just as hard as those who crafted the historical sites. What causes some people to say that one building is worth saving while another must be taken down?
So it goes with our school systems…
For years, hard-working, well-intentioned, well-informed educators have built educational institutions. Many of which are still very effective in fulfilling their purpose, while some institutions are in need of being torn down because they no longer meet the needs of today’s students.
Take for instance the “institution” known as the Carnegie Unit (credit hour). Developed in the late 19th century to standardize “seat time” for students, this promoted a level of same-ness across schools. The concept picked up steam in public education as schools grew larger and colleges and universities sought to better select the right students for their institutions. In the K-12 sector, schools have utilized this model to assign credit for completing a requisite amount of time in a class, equating to a pre-determined level of content learned.
In the years since this “institution” was built we have learned a lot about teaching and learning. We have learned that students sometimes acquire the pre-determined level of learning faster than the number of hours would dictate – some students need additional seat time in order to demonstrate mastery. Graduates of higher-ed institutions have completed the 120 credit hours necessary to earn a diploma. However in recent studies nearly 50% of college grads since 2006 are currently unemployed or underemployed – most tens of thousands of dollars in debt.


Are those credit hours worth as much as they used to be? Does that institution still serve its intended purpose?
I have no personal vendetta against the idea of a Carnegie unit. Rather I believe that there are still facets of public education that we maintain (a.k.a. fund) that have outlived their intended purpose. We also have a slew of innovative ideas that we regularly say “no” to because we cannot afford another new initiative.
Great educational leaders are skilled at asking the right questions. “Does this program still meet the needs of our students?” “Is there a better way to accomplish _____ in light of new educational research?” The best leaders are those who are able to build consensus in deciding which institutions and traditions must be preserved and which ones have run their course.

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