Nearly everyone is wondering how to start what will be the most uncertain new school year of our lifetimes. I sense both fear and hope. It is going to be a mess, but that may inspire worthy innovations.

 

Here is my suggestion: For decades, the average American neighborhood school has ignored what appears to be one of the best tools for raising achievement — increased learning time. Why not do something about that? Many celebrated teachers have shown the power of stealing a few hours from lunch or after school. But policymakers remain uninterested.

 

We have been stuck for decades with just 6½ hours of school a day, five days a week, 180 school days a year. “It is a failure of imagination,” said Chris Gabrieli, one of the nation’s leading advocates for more time. “People are so inured to the system we have had that they cannot imagine just changing the parameters.”

 

Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has learned to live with his frustrations. He said the lack of sufficient time is wired into our schools in two ways: We have known no other system our whole lives, and teacher contracts in strong union states require that any schedule changes be negotiated.