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The Carnegie Units: The Common Core of High Schools


Q. I believe in a liberal-arts education that is well-rounded and keeps my son's options totally open. I believe a young person facing today's Information Age must have knowledge that is both broad and deep, and not too specialized, since the world is changing so very fast. I keep thinking about typewriter repairmen; they were knocked completely out of the water by the spread of computers, with skills that were irrelevant practically overnight. I don't want something like that to happen to my son! How can I help him make the most of the offerings that are available to him in his high school?


You can voice your opinion to your school board, high school administration, and teachers that you support a curriculum based on the Carnegie Units. Those are the traditional, classic liberal-arts subjects that for centuries have formed the basis for a solid education. Besides public libraries, the American inheritance from industrialist Andrew Carnegie was this listing of how many years, or "units," each student should have in high school in order to earn a diploma. Here's a typical list from a challenging high school:


English, 4 years (including at least one year each of composition and literature)


Math, 4 years (such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus)


Science, 4 years (biology, chemistry, physics)


Foreign Language, 2 years (of the same language, and of course, 4 years is better)


Social Studies / History, 4 years (American and world history required)


The Arts, 2 years (a little bit of everything is preferable, with multi-year study in one form, such as music)


Usually, there are requirements for physical education and technology as well


Somewhere along the way, Political Correctness and special-interest agenda groups slipped in so many extra "musts" that today many high schools have allowed the "core curriculum" represented by the Carnegie Units to erode, and now all kinds of other classes are allowed or even required. Example: service learning, or forced voluntarism, which is ironic, indeed, since if you want to foster voluntarism, you probably shouldn't force it.


The erosion of the Carnegie Units means that students can satisfy their school's watered-down math requirement after sophomore year, for example, and then take study hall, "lifestyle classes" and other questionable uses of in-school time while ruling themselves out for certain jobs and college majors because of a skimpy math preparation.


But the nation's scholars and educators have had enough of that. They're joining forces to press for a stronger liberal arts and science curriculum in the nation's public schools as a way of combating what they described as a disturbing lack of critical content knowledge.


The group, called Common Core, hopes to convince school boards and the public that the arts, foreign languages, history and social sciences, and science are essential to providing a complete education to the nation's schoolchildren.


The federal education law, No Child Left Behind, requires that mathematics and reading be tested annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, and beginning this school year, science must be tested three times throughout a student's K-12 career.

Common Core intends to take up the mantle of the Council for Basic Education, a nonpartisan group that advocated a strong liberal arts focus for public schools for 48 years before it folded in 2004 for budgetary reasons. The new organization is located in Washington.


"Of course children must know how to read and compute, but children must be knowledgeable in addition to being skilled," said Lynne Munson, Common Core's executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Too many students, she said, are getting an "incomplete education." Part of the problem with a skimpy amount of background knowledge is that reading comprehension suffers; too much of the time, the student doesn't have an existing knowledge base on any given topic large enough to "scaffold," or "construct," additional knowledge sufficient to grasp a concept, much less analyze and innovate.


She cited surveys that indicated that American high-school seniors are ignorant of many important facts of U.S. history and literature, and, true, to the old song, "don't know much about history . . ." and other liberal-arts subjects. For more about what students DON'T know because of the erosion in the Carnegie Units, see


Homework: For more about quality liberal-arts education, see; for an idea of how states use Carnegie Units as their graduation requirements, see:


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 146 2008


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