10/10/2014 09:28 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2014

Is It Time for Schools to Rethink, Well, Time?

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On a recent weekday morning in Washington D.C., several hundred teenagers hurriedly made their way through their high school's hallways in a frantic effort to get to class on time.

I know -- nothing new there. Except that in this particular school, the hallways had ubiquitous electronic clocks that measured time in bright red numerals down to the second, and these particular students had just three minutes to move from one class to another. "They had five minutes last year," principal Caroline Hill told me, in between passionate exhortations for her students to keep moving. "And it was a complete waste of time."

Admittedly, Hill -- the founding principal of the E.L. Haynes Charter High School -- is a little time-obsessed. That's because she's also obsessed with making sure that the most timeless experience in American public life -- the school day -- jettison its anachronistic habits and enter the modern age. "We can't transform school," she continued, "until we transform the way we think about time and its relationship to learning."

Ostensibly, Hill's school is as good a place as any to try to bring about such a mind-shift. One of D.C.'s most sought after public options, the Haynes high school building reflects a mixture of traditional and innovative roots. Formerly a neighborhood public school until it was closed in 2008, Haynes secured the right to the building a year later, in 2009, and launched an ambitious renovation plan soon after. The end result is a $25 million, space capsule-style addition to the original building -- and more than 46,000 additional square feet. The main entrance opens onto a sun-filled atrium that feels more like a university student center than a high school. And although the pace of the day still feels a lot like the high school you and your parents (and your grandparents) probably attended -- with classes in 50-minute increments, spread across a seven-hour day -- what happens during those classes feels a lot different. That's because E.L. Haynes is determined to rethink the two most important parts of the high school experience: ninth grade, and the way students start; and twelfth grade, and the way they finish. "And what we're learning," Hill told me, "is that in order for those experiences to be meaningfully different, adults and young people first need to completely rethink what it means to be a teacher or a student."

Hill's interest in reimagining the entry and exit points for her students was piqued shortly after the school welcomed its first group of ninth graders. "We had assumed that all of our high school kids would come directly from our lower school," she explained, "but three-fourths of them were coming from other schools across the city, which meant the skill-levels and expectations each student had about what school was about were all over the map. Meanwhile, our ninth grade was structured as this typical one-size-fits-all experience, regardless of where the kids were at individually."

Hill and her faculty quickly decided that if they wanted to ensure that all students were ready for life after high school, they had to get serious about closing those gaps. "And it's really hard to create a more personalized high school experience when you have constraints on time and talent, and all these pieces that say you have to do 'school' a certain way."

In particular, Hill means a timeworn way of thinking about school in which, simply put, time is the constant, and learning is the variable. Typically, American schools are structured this way, such that if a student doesn't master the material presented in the allocated time, he or she fails the unit, the class marches on, and whatever skills or information were supposed to be acquired simply get left behind.

Sound familiar?

But Haynes and a growing number of other schools around the country are trying to flip the script by making learning the constant, and time the variable. "If we're not willing to have a revolving door on our talent and our students, then something's going to have to change in the way we do 'school,'" she said. "Why not, on the first day, give students everything they need to succeed, as opposed to this lesson today, and that book tomorrow. Instead, say these are the books we're going to read this year. Here. Have them. These are the lessons and models we're going to do in math. Here. Have them. And then spend the rest of your time tending to individual needs and letting everyone proceed at their own pace."

Of course, that sort of culture shift is easier said than done. American schools have conferred degrees based on Andrew Carnegie's century-old notion of the "Carnegie Unit" -- aka the credit hour -- for generations. This is especially ironic since the Carnegie Unit was never supposed to be a measure of learning; instead, its original purpose was simply to measure how much teachers were working, as a way to differentiate high school from college -- and as a method for determining teacher pensions. If learning is to replace time as the constant, however, our methods for evaluating each individual's learning must become much more nuanced and precise. And yet once again, time looms large. As Lee Shulman, president emeritus of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, puts it: "The reason students fail... is not that they're not smart. It's that they need more time to succeed, and time is precisely what educators fail to give them.

"Learning should never result in a normal curve," Shulman argues. "It should result in a kind of 'J curve' in which most students end up clustered at the successful end of the continuum. And the only way that can happen is if we permit time to vary."

I saw firsthand what this looks like after entering Shane Donovan's ninth grade physics class. An early adopter of this approach, Donovan received the Citybridge Foundation's Education Innovation Fellowship, a yearlong program that introduces teachers to promising innovations in personalized learning, as well as the chance to pilot personalized learning models in their schools. While Donovan surfed the room, his students -- all but two of who are either designated as special-needs learners, or English-language-learners, or both -- worked in small clusters based on whichever standard in the curriculum they were working on.

Occasionally Donovan would address the entire room, but it was only to remind them to monitor their individual needs. "If you're not done with Standard Seven by the end of the period," he bellowed at one point, "you have homework. If it's just a matter of time, finish it on your own. But if you're stuck, come find me so you can get yourself unstuck."

Donovan is bouncy and bound, with glasses, a lanyard around his neck, and rolled-up sleeves. After the period ends, I asked him what it takes to run a class this way. "I spent the summer making screencasts of all the traditional lectures I would have to give this year so the kids could watch them whenever they wanted," he said, "but the hardest part has been learning to let go so I can let the kids do, without the typical minute-to-minute feedback.

"For me," he continued, "the important question was not how to make school self-paced; it was how to stop getting crappy projects that didn't show depth of understanding. How can we shift what we do as adults so that if kids are doing assessments, they're doing them well?"

Since making that shift, Donovan says something surprising emerged: a much clearer demonstration of high-impact life skills that didn't necessarily have anything to do with physics -- skills like learning how to organize your time, keep track of your own progress, and get help when you need it, but not before. "I've come to believe that the most important thing happening here isn't the physics; it's them understanding how to correct their own mistakes. We still have kids who are always pressing the ejector seat -- 'I need a teacher! I need a teacher!' -- but it's much easier now to see who got it and who didn't, and who knows how to organize their time, and who doesn't."

That transparency is key for the school's plans to reimagine twelfth grade as well. "We need to teach our students how to work with independent time," Hill explained. "If they're flailing with us, that's a gift, because it means we still have some time to teach them how to manage their time before they leave us and have to do it on their own. It's like peeling back an extra layer of the onion."

Donovan agrees, and is surprised by how much it's changed the way he thinks about teaching. "In a way, I don't really care how much physics they learn," he admitted. "I want them to learn how to correct their own mistakes. That can make it harder -- to see kids struggle -- but if our boys don't graduate, we know what the statistics tell us will await them. So helping them learn how to struggle and become more self-aware matters much more than, say, Standard Twelve in the ninth grade Physics curriculum.

"To teach this way is definitely messy and weird," Donovan said while welcoming his next group of students into class. "And I'm definitely never going back."