Kids getting on a school bus.

Kids getting on a school bus. Credit: iStock

A little more than a decade ago, I was hanging out in a school superintendent's office as he packed up his papers and books. He was retiring after a successful career, and our talk turned philosophical. What makes the difference, I asked, for students when they're struggling? He didn't hesitate: It's time on task.

Slow down the pace until kids grasp a concept, he said. When they "get it," they're ready to move on and build on it.

I'm sure most teachers understand this intuitively. But our system isn't built for individual learning pace. By state law, public school is a 6.5-hour day and a 180-day year. In high school, we move kids around at 45-minute intervals. "Social promotion" -- promoting a child to the next grade even if he or she is not ready -- has lessened but still occurs.

Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that learning takes time in his book "Outliers: The Story of Success." He demonstrated that people who became really marvelous performers -- whether in the youth hockey league or as a computer geek like Bill Gates -- logged 10,000 hours at their endeavor. They spent time on task.

More often now, schools are using this concept to their advantage. Twice as many schools today have a longer school day or year than just two years ago, according to a new study from the National Center on Time and Learning and the Education Commission of the States. And for the first time, more of them are traditional public schools than charters, which established longer hours to boost student achievement. The number of students in extended learning schools is now 1.2 million, up from 520,000 two years ago.

If the United States is going to remain a world leader in innovation and create a vibrant future economy, better-prepared students are essential. If that means more hours in school, I'm for it.

Many studies tie more learning time to higher scores in reading and math. Researcher David A. Farbman lays out an extensive case on the website of the National Center on Time & Learning. Given the focus on deeper problem-solving skills required for the Common Core standards, more learning time makes sense.

However, schools extending their day or year are also using the time to allow teachers to collaborate, to share ideas and discuss what's working with a student. Additional time is also devoted not just to math and English, but to art, music, science, robotics and other "extras." As the mother of a marching band student, I don't think of these as extras but as essentials that help drive excitement for school and passion to work as a team.

According to the study, most schools have added time by tacking 30 minutes to the school day or 10 days to the academic year. That's a sea change for a country where most state laws mandate a minimum of 180 school days a year -- and where, for 100 years, our schools have just met the minimum.

In some cases, districts are compensating teachers for the extra time. In Boston, the teachers union and school board agreed to $4,500 more a year for an extra 75 minutes a week.

I know, I know. Long Island already pays so much to educate kids that we're pricing out retirees and young families. Or, many will argue that schools are being asked to respond to societal problems like parents who work longer hours and can't be home to help their kids with homework. Schools shouldn't have to bear so much responsibility -- although this is usually phrased as, "Stop blaming the teachers."

I don't blame. But we need to respond to a changing world. More time on task is one idea that's growing in other regions of the country. It could work here, too.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.