Student Well-Being Commentary

We Already Know School Starts Too Early. It’s Time to Do Something About It

Teenagers shouldn’t have to go to class while half asleep
By David Polochanin — October 02, 2018 4 min read
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Common sense, as a general idea, seems easy to define. But when it comes to the time that middle and high school students start school in most places across the United States, the education community has been doing it wrong—with numerous, hard-to-ignore studies, sleep experts, and national organizations rightly blasting the negative impact on adolescents to begin class around 7:30 a.m.

On this topic, most schools have been in the Dark Ages, literally and figuratively. The vast majority of districts do not heed recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics to hold off beginning middle and high school until 8:30 a.m.

For advocates of a later start time for secondary schools, it was a brief ray of hope to learn of California’s recent progress on the matter, with lawmakers there approving a bill that would require all middle and high schools to begin after 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown, citing that the decision should be made by local school boards, vetoed the legislation late last month.

When you consider the negative impact of an early school day on adolescents and pre-adolescents, the facts can no longer be ignored."

Even with the California setback, the movement to push back school start times is gaining momentum nationally. From Saco, Maine, to Seattle, many districts have already successfully pushed back the start times of high schools and middle schools—and with largely positive results. For instance, according to the nonprofit group Start School Later, Saco schools have seen a 40 percent drop in tardiness, an almost 50 percent reduction in student visits to the nurse, and staff reports that students are more alert and ready to learn since they moved to a later start time in 2016.

Scores rise, too, when schools align their schedules with adolescent biological clocks. In 2014, a three-year, 9,000-student study from researchers at the University of Minnesota found that students whose high schools changed their schedules to start at 8:30 a.m. or later improved their performance in English, math, science, social studies, and standardized tests.

So, if the research is clear that making this change yields an overwhelmingly positive outcome, the burning question is: Why has this taken so long? And: When will other districts follow suit?

The answers are muddied by a mix of factors, ranging from a shift in family schedules, potential budget adjustments to accommodate more buses, challenges with after-school sports and activities, and the prospect of having students complete their homework later at night than they already do. But the main issue, experts studying the change agree, is one of simple inconvenience. Schools and their communities have been so accustomed to the current schedule that many are resistant to change. It’s much easier to do what has always been done.

However, when you consider the negative impact of an early school day on adolescents and pre-adolescents, the facts can no longer be ignored. Thirteen- to 18-year-olds require 8 to 10 hours of sleep daily, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Circadian rhythms during puberty force teens to go to bed later and sleep later in the morning. Anyone who has taught middle and high school, or has a child in this age range, can attest to this. (Forehead on the dining room table during breakfast, anyone?) School start times forcing teens to wake up before 6 a.m. clearly do not align with teens’ sleep needs.

According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, adolescents who do not get the required amount of sleep are at risk for a host of serious physical problems, including obesity and diabetes; safety concerns, including drowsy driving; issues related to mental health, including increased anxiety, depression, and decreased motivation; and a decrease in school performance, such as cognitive impairment, problems with attention and memory, lower academic achievement, poor attendance, and higher dropout rate.

The author of the failed California bill, Democratic state senator Anthony J. Portantino, recently told The New York Times that forcing teens to get out of bed so early is “the biological equivalent of waking you or me up at 3:30 a.m. Imagine how you would feel if, 187 days a year, you had to get up at 3:30 a.m. You’d be miserable, you’d be depressed—you’d act like a teenager.”

With such compelling evidence, it makes one wonder how children in middle and high schools have been able to function well at all in school—at least during the early morning hours. It also calls to mind how an earlier start time could have helped millions of students who haven’t performed well, faced physical problems, or dropped out because they have had to wake up far earlier than they should have.

As author Daniel H. Pink states in his latest book, When, this is a remediable problem. “Starts matter,” he writes. “We can’t always control them. But this is one area where we can and therefore we must.”

Veteran educators know that, each year, communities throughout the country spend millions on costly new initiatives—technology, curriculum, new buildings, to name a few—many of which have marginal positive impact on student learning.

If school superintendents and boards of education were to examine the research behind secondary school start times, it is impossible to disagree: Outdated schedules are failing many students. We can no longer be complacent. As schools look for an answer to boost student attendance, performance, and engagement, making a change in start times for secondary students is an obvious solution.

Now, which districts will read the research and have the common sense—and the courage—to make the change?

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2018 edition of Education Week as School Start Times Matter

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