High School Start Times Should Shift to 10 a.m., Researchers Argue

By Evie Blad — September 11, 2015 2 min read
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Cross-posted from Rules for Engagement.

Sixteen-year-old students should be starting school no earlier than 10 a.m., a group of scientists wrote recently, citing the effects of changing sleep patterns on areas like health, learning, and memory.

And 18-year-olds should start their school day at 11 a.m., said the researchers, from Oxford University, Harvard University, and the University of Nebraska.

The position is a dramatic extension of previous research recommendations. In 2014, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics said middle schools and high schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better sync with students’ changing sleep cycles.

But such changes don’t go far enough, the researchers wrote in the August issue of Learning, Media and Technology. From the paper:

“During adolescence biological changes dictate both a sleep duration of nine hours and later wake and sleep times, a phenomenon found in other mammals. At its peak the combination of these two biological changes leads to a loss of two to three hours sleep every school day. Thus, a 07:00 alarm call for older adolescents is the equivalent of a 04:30 start for a teacher in their 50s. Failure to adjust education timetables to this biological change leads to systematic, chronic and unrecoverable sleep loss. This level of sleep loss causes impairment to physiological, metabolic and psychological health in adolescents while they are undergoing other major physical and neurological changes.”

The paper includes this chart, which summarizes the research on the various effects of sleep loss on teens.

As the researchers note, even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has lent his support to later school start times.

But few schools are matching practice with research in this area. As the CDC recently reported, five out of every six U.S. middle and high schools start before 8:30 a.m.

So why aren’t schools making such changes? Here are a few thoughts:

Effects on families, jobs, parents’ schedules- If teens started school at 10 a.m., when would they get out of school? And how would that affect after-school jobs, athletics, and responsibilities to look after younger siblings?

Some educators may not see the importance of the research- “The impact of early school times on adolescents is not understood by most educators: a common belief is that adolescents are tired, irritable and uncooperative because they choose to stay up too late, or are difficult to wake in the morning because they are lazy,” the researchers write. “Educators tend to think that adolescents learn best in the morning and if they simply went to sleep earlier, it would improve their concentration.”

Cost- It’s expensive to change bus routes, teacher contracts, and the way school facilities are used. For example, Virginia’s 185,000-student Fairfax County district estimated it would cost about $5 million to slightly shift its middle school and high school start times this year.

But the researchers say the changes are worth it, even if schools aren’t starting as late as they suggest.

“The financial cost of most other interventions to improve health and attainment in adolescents appears to be far greater than later starts in schools,” the paper says. “Implementation of later starts may have some financial costs depending on the education system, though such costs are relative modest in comparison with the positive impact.”

What do you think? Can you imagine a high school starting at 10 a.m.?

Further reading on sleep and school times:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.