School & District Management

Scientists Say Teens Need More Sleep. Should States Require Later School Start Times?

By Evie Blad — August 14, 2017 2 min read
Students arrive at The School of Creative Studies, a magnet school for grades 6-12 in Durham, N.C., last week. Next year, most of Durham’s high school students will start around 9 a.m., allowing them to get more sleep.
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A California lawmaker has proposed a bill that would require the state’s middle schools and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., aligning their schedules with recommendations by scientists who say teens don’t get enough sleep.

California school boards currently set their own start times without such restrictions. If the bill passed, schools would be required to adjust their schedules by 2020 unless they are rural schools that qualify for a waiver from the rule. The state’s senate has passed the bill, and its assembly is expected to consider it when the legislature reconvenes.

The unusual proposal comes after waves of recommendations in recent years from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, which wrote in a 2014 position paper that secondary schools should start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to better sync with students’ changing sleep cycles. It’s not that teens stay up late and sleep in because they lack self control, the group said. Rather, pediatricians say adolescents’ body clocks are naturally programmed to wake up later than their younger peers.

“Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental-health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance,” the organization said in a position paper. “But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.—and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.”

But most districts don’t heed that recommendation. Nationwide, five out of every six U.S. middle and high schools ring their first bell before 8:30 a.m., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015.

As Education Week reported that year, an international group of sleep researchers pushed even harder, when they said classes should ideally start no earlier than 10 a.m. for 16-year-olds and no earlier than 11 a.m. for 18-year-olds. “The researchers—from Oxford University, Harvard University, and the University of Nevada—acknowledged schools were not likely to follow their guidance, in part because of logistical concerns, and because schools still don’t recognize the importance of changing biological rhythms in the teen years,” I wrote. From that story:

“But even administrators who are committed to changing bell schedules say it is one of the decisions that sparks the most concerns, comments, and even resistance from parents and members of the public. That’s because many school districts use school buses in shifts, taking several waves of students to different schools throughout the morning. Changing start times for secondary schools typically forces districts to either expand their transportation budgets to buy or lease more buses, or to also shift start times for elementary schools to make the schedules work.”

If California passes the proposed bill, it might lead to districts to shift start times for elementary schools, too, to make it all work logistically. An analysis of the bill also cites potential effects for parents, single-parent families, transportation, and extracurricular activities.

And there are sure to be groups that oppose such a measure in favor of leaving such decisions in the hands of local school boards. The bill is opposed by the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association.

Related reading on school start times, student sleep:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.