Education Opinion

On Making the Earth Stand Still

By Susan Graham — March 08, 2008 3 min read
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So the sun stood still in the middle of heaven, and hurried not to go down.... Joshua 10:13 (KJV)

Friday afternoon, as the last kids left the building, the intercom spoke unto me:

Please note that the clocks have been reset. Although the clocks read 4:57 it is now really 3:57. Our clocks have been reset for Monday morning when Daylight Saving Time is in effect.

I detest Daylight Saving Time. Just when we get to that point in the year when I can wake to sunlight and the busy birds, and then sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” as I drive to school, I am forced once again to rise in darkness and arrive at school just as dawn is fading into daylight. Every year I rage against it, demanding to know “WHY???” So, for all who share my frustration, I did my homework this time around.

Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea of Daylight Saving Time while serving as Ambassador to France. It was a logical idea in a world lit with candlelight. It seems that one of the first efforts to actually implement Franklin’s idea came in 1907. An Englishman, William Willett, wrote a pamphlet titled “The Waste of Daylight.” Defending his proposal to put all of England on a schedule of moving up their clocks 20 minutes on four consecutive Sundays in March, Willett argued:

Everyone appreciates the long, light evenings. Everyone laments their shortage as Autumn approaches, and everyone has given utterance to regret that the clear, bright light of an early morning during Spring and Summer months is so seldom seen or used. Nevertheless, standard time remains so fixed, that for nearly half the year the sun shines upon the land for several hours each day while we are asleep, and is rapidly nearing the horizon, having already passed its western limit, when we reach home after the work of the day is over.

But Michael Terman, a clinical psychologist and head of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, notes that light-sensitive individuals who suffer from winter depression are just beginning to get over their symptoms when along comes Daylight Savings Time. Quoted in a recent article published in Live Science, “Time Change: Springing Forward Could be Bad For You,” Terman says:

We are placing these people back into February. We are dealing with a public health issue and the extension of Daylight Saving Time at both ends is extending the period of year in which people are most vulnerable to depression.

William Willett died in 1915 with time as yet unaltered (maybe his failure had to do with the unlikely prospect that folks would remember to change their clocks FOUR weekends in a row?). But the energy demands of World War I soon pushed much of Europe to implement DST. For a year, in 1918-19, the United States followed suit, but most states dropped the practice quickly after the war. Farmers preferred their sunlight on the front-end of the day. Also, in those days natural daylight was the primary source of light in public and private buildings. Incandescent light was supplemental for dark days and late hours. Factories featured the distinctive saw-toothed clerestory windows, and public buildings such as schools were characterized by their big windows admitting light and air.

The need for energy conservation revived DST in the U.S. during World War II. After the war, DST became optional again -- much to the growing dismay of railways, bus and air lines and the broadcasting industry, where commerce depended on timetables. The debate continued every spring and fall for the next 20 years. Then Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Time Act into law, which created the familiar April to October system. Just last year, Congress extended DST by another four weeks, ostensibly in response (once again) to the energy conservation arguments.

But the research justifying DST as an energy-saver is more than 20 years old. Some current research indicates that while there is minimal electrical power conserved through DST, it results in increased use of gasoline, greater emissions, and pedestrian deaths. It seems that we are spending those extra daylight hours driving around in our cars, burning gas, and running over (sleepy?) people on our way to convenience stores and the golf course. Hum.

So what does all this mean to me as a teacher? (My editors sigh in relief)

Science has proven what every teacher knows about teenagers: Their circadian clock tells them not to sleep in. And since many of my students are responsible for getting themselves up in the morning, they often listen to what that clock tells them. They need eight to ten hours of sleep and they are not getting it. And while, in theory, DST gives them more time outside, the lack of sleep will not be offset by an increase in healthy outdoor activity for many children. Their working parents want them to stay in where they are safe after school, which is reasonable since juvenile crime peaks at three in the afternoon.

And, you may ask, do adolescents learn more early in the day? As my friend Nancy likes to say, not so much. It’s interesting to me that (at least where I live) we do high stakes testing during the first couple of hours of the school day -- especially in light of what this research summary, “What is the Best Time of Day for Student Learning?,” tells us. A couple of quotes:

According to Carskadon, the students' brains--at 8:30 in the morning, during second or third period--were essentially still asleep.

(W)hen given the opportunity as part of the experiment to try to fall asleep in the morning upon arrival at school, almost half of the 10th-graders went into deep REM sleep (sleep that usually only occurs in the middle of the night), and they fell asleep on average within 5 minutes.

They might all be Highly Proficient if we tested them at 3 p.m.. But by then the Hidden Gifted have left the building.

Oh well. I’m writing this ahead of my posting date, so let me say back here in Real Time that I’m going to bed early Sunday night so I can be ready for Monday, because there will be lots of tardies and grumpy people at my school. Unfortunately, I’ll probably be one of them.

I guess I’m just young at heart!

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.