Should the government step in and force middle and high schools to have later school start times?
One researcher says yes, and a California state senator is proposing that type of legislation.
Pamela Malaspina McKeever conducts research with Central Connecticut State University. Her most recent study entitled, “Delayed High School Start Times Later Than 8:30 a.m. and Impact on Graduation Rates and Attendance Rates,” found a positive correlation between a later school start and higher rates of graduation and attendance.
McKeever’s study looked at data for 30,000 high school students enrolled in 29 different high schools across seven states. She compared graduation and attendance rates for these schools one year before they implemented a start time after 8:30 and two years after they made the schedule change.
She found that the average graduation rate rose from 79 percent to 88 percent. The average attendance rate rose from 90 percent to 94 percent.
“I was really surprised about the graduation rate jumping that much,” said McKeever.
Given her findings and the findings of other researchers, McKeever said it’s surprising that more districts aren’t pushing start times later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better align with adolescents’ natural body rhythms. Changes that occur in puberty make it more difficult for these students to fall asleep before 11:00 p.m. making it much harder for them to get up early for school.
McKeever, who is an elementary school principal herself, said she used to think school administrators left early school start times in place because they didn’t understand how students’ circadian rhythms changed in adolescence. But not anymore.
“Now as time goes, I’m starting to learn it really has more to do with the politics behind setting bell schedules,” said McKeever. “A lot of communities, a lot of parents rely on the teenagers to get home earlier than the younger kids so that they’re there to babysit. Some worry about the after-school sports schedules, after-school jobs.”
But she said the primary reason is society’s rigidity around the issue.
“I do believe the strongest power is parents not wanting that change to occur,” said McKeever.
In many districts, later school start times for middle and high school students mean earlier start times for students in elementary school. In some areas, elementary school parents have complained about these changes, citing safety concerns and younger students’ sleep needs.
The Democrat frames it as a public health issue and points to research like McKeever’s showing a wealth of positive outcomes for students when it comes to metrics like grades and graduation rates when school start times are later.
“At the same time, car accidents have gone down, disruptive behavior in the classroom has gone down, depression has gone down, so for me, when people talk about educator reform, here’s a very simple way to achieve positive benefits,” said Portantino, who’s been sharing his thoughts on the issue with stakeholders in his district. “Anybody who has read the research immediately gravitates towards this is something that we need to do.”
But he said change is hard institutionally, and this is not something he would want to implement right away. He’s proposing that the later school start time go into effect in a couple of years to give parents, schools, and communities time to adjust.
As some districts around the country have considered later school start times for high school students, they’ve come up against problems with bus schedules. Some say the costs of tinkering with this schedule make such a change prohibitive.
“I think they throw out that bus-schedule thing as sort of a red herring,” said Portantino. “This doesn’t mean that schools can’t coordinate bus times. It just changes what goes first, what goes second.”
He also argued that funding would increase because of higher attendance rates, which help to determine school funding in California.
Portantino contends that the majority of arguments against a later school start time have nothing to do with what’s best for students.
“All of the arguments that have been put forth against this are adult-centered arguments,” said Portantino. “There are no kid arguments against this. This is in the best interest of the health and welfare of the student, and academic performance increases. Given the data, it would be irresponsible of us not to use the data to help our kids.”
McKeever supports Portantino’s position. She said many school administrators fear going against parents’ wishes even if a schedule change is what’s best for students.
“If it’s mandated by state officials or federal, that factor is washed away, and we can really look at meeting the basic needs of our adolescents, allowing them to get the sleep that they need,” said McKeever. “Hopefully, that takes the politics out of the decision-making.”
Portantino’s bill is set for a hearing next week.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.