07/28/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Summer, Once a Time for Reflection, Now the Time for Radical Redesign

Tanesha Dixon vividly remembers the first summer she spent as a teacher - as part of a service program in Uganda, just before her senior year at Notre Dame.

"I had my heart set on being a forensic psychologist," she told me recently, amidst the busy midday shuffle of downtown Washington, D.C. "Then I felt what it was like to be part of a place that was changing people's lives. And I decided I wanted to keep being that person."

Eleven years later, Dixon has become that person for scores of young men and women at the Wheatley Education Campus in the D.C. neighborhood of Trinidad. In that time, she'd observed that the stereotype of how teachers spend their summer - a.k.a seventy-seven consecutive Saturdays - never corresponded to the reality of her and her colleagues. "Summer is always the time for reflection, for the research you can't always complete during the year, and for doing the work you have to do to make the next year even better than the last."

This year, however, Tanesha Dixon is still waiting for her first moment of summer respite. "Every day," she confessed wearily, "I work all day, go home, eat something, and then work until three in the morning. I feel like I'm building Rome and the road to it, simultaneously."

Tanesha's principal at Wheatley, Scott Cartland, knows what she's talking about. Six years ago, his first summer at the school coincided with the DC government's decision to install military-like checkpoints throughout Trinidad to try and stop a spate of murders. He remembers well the first school assembly he tried to organize that September. "We couldn't get the crowd quiet enough to say anything," he recalled. "Security guards were chasing kids around the aisles, other kids were screaming - it was complete chaos. You realize you're outnumbered, and the kids don't know you or trust you. We were in for a long year."

Since then, with the help of teachers like Dixon, Cartland had helped engineer an impressive culture shift at Wheatley. But even though crucial factors like trust, attendance and student achievement had risen considerably, "it still wasn't fast enough. Most of our kids don't have a lot of social supports in their lives, so it's especially important here that they start to really assume control of their own learning. And dragging a whole class of kids through the same curriculum over an entire school year clearly ain't the way."

For educators like Cartland and Dixon, then, the conclusion was clear: summer could no longer be the place to reflect on how to get better in a system that was never going to meet the needs of all their kids. It had to become the laboratory for something radical - a complete redesign of the structure and purpose of schooling. "What we decided," Cartland told me, "was that the best place to start was by shifting toward a competency-based model of learning, and putting every kid in a position to be able to determine their own pace and progress, all year long."

Although the phrase hasn't entered mainstream conversation, "competency education" is on the mind of lots of educators and policymakers. It emerged out of the logic that if you want to make learning more personalized, you can't continue to assign credit hours to students based on Industrial-era notions like "seat time" or "Carnegie Units." In response, a growing number of schools and states are starting to organize learning not by credit hours, but by competencies - or the extent to which a student can demonstrably transfer knowledge and skills in and across content areas. In such an environment, each student is allowed to move through a curriculum at his or her own pace, and no one moves on until s/he can demonstrate mastery of the core concepts.

"To do that well," Cartland explained, "a school like ours has to rethink just about everything - from grades to tests to professional development to the structure of the school day." And to do that at all, Dixon adds, requires a reorientation that calls into question just about everything that she and her colleagues find most familiar about their chosen profession. "Some days I feel like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future," she confessed. "I'm in my DeLorean, and it's the 1950s again, and I'm fighting Biff. But the future is now. We have more people coming out of DC with HIV than we do with four-year degrees. We have to be courageous enough to hold up a mirror and describe what we see. And if we're being honest, I think we have to conclude that the whole way we do school is wrong. Teaching to the middle is wrong. Moving kids through the same curriculum at the same pace is wrong.

"Educators today have a choice to make: are we willing to be like those early civil rights activists who chose to sit at the lunch counter, or do we want to stand and observe from a safe distance so we can run when the cops come? I understand where the impulse to protect oneself comes from. I feel it, too. But this is what it means to be a teacher today, and we need to be accept the challenge of behaving in some very different ways."

I saw evidence of Tanesha's claims recently during a two-day workshop for her school and five others in DC - a mixture of existing neighborhood schools like Wheatley, and new charter schools that haven't yet opened their doors. Each school had received a grant from the Citybridge Foundation (full disclosure: Citybridge has asked me to write a series of articles about school reform issues in DC) to reimagine its school in ways that make learning more personalized for each student. "The best and worst feature of competency education is that it never looks the same," explained Rose Colby, a national expert on the subject who kicked off the meeting. "But let's begin by letting you all share your most pressing questions or wonders."

Scott Cartland raised his hand first. "At Wheatley, we're struggling to design the right performance tasks for kids, and we're wondering how we're going to be grouping kids and allocating time. This model requires a much more open-ended system, and we're still working in the old model, which breaks the day into lots of periods but pushes kids through that day in rigid groups."

"At some point," Rose replied, "we have to acknowledge that tweaking the old schedule won't really work. The only way forward is to begin by thinking about what kids need, and then aligning everything to flow from that."

Every night, late into the night, that's exactly what Tanesha Dixon is trying to do. "We've built systems of curriculum that are basically grade-based and fixed. Starting this fall with our 6th graders, we're going to try and do the opposite: to lay down the entire curriculum at the start of the year, and let kids move through it at their own pace. But meanwhile the education world is obsessed with standards, and the switch to the Common Core."

Dixon took a deep breath. "The thing is, standards are not competencies - they don't rise to an equal weight. Competencies are the transfer; they're the performance component that bundles lots of standards together into one demonstrable concept. It's big. It's right. And I like that at Wheatley we're not shying away from the challenge - but some days I wonder how we can pull off such a massive shift when so much of the old way of thinking about all this remains in the minds of so many."

Cartland agrees. "Right now, I feel like everything we've done has been one giant sprint to the starting line. The summer has been invaluable. But this fall is when the real work will begin. That's when we'll find out if it was all worthwhile."

Follow Sam on Twitter.