As the United States takes its first steps into a new decade, public education is being scrutinized from every angle. Some advocate eliminating teachers’ unions and tenure, making instructors directly accountable for their students’ progress on standardized tests. Others maintain that the K-12 public education system is suffering from a critical shortage of qualified teachers, and improved salaries and working conditions are needed to recruit the best talent.
While policy-makers debate the feasibility of such large-scale changes, some school districts are trying to improve the educational outcomes of their public high school students by making a small, simple, but potentially powerful change. These school districts are considering changing school start times from the traditional 8:00 am to a later 8:30 am. What is their reasoning? Well-rested students learn better.
The Benefits of Later School Start Times
From improved learning to better health, there is a myriad of reasons public schools are considering starting school at 8:30 am.
Works with Teenagers’ Natural Sleep Rhythms
According to the National Sleep Foundation, children undergo a shift in sleep patterns when they enter puberty which causes them to remain alert later into the evening and to remain sleepy later in the morning. In other words, teenagers are naturally inclined to stay up later at night and wake up later in the morning.
Advocates argue that an 8:30 am start time improves students’ chances of success. In the early morning, when their brains are not fully awake, students are not forced to focus on difficult academic tasks and concepts.
Helps Students Get the Sleep They Need
Due to their busy schedules, as well as their natural tendencies to stay up later at night, many high school students do not get to sleep until 11 p.m. or later. When students must wake up early enough to get to class by 8 am, the result can be a severe sleep deficit.
Business Week reports that a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that about two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep per night. The study indicates that only eight percent of high school students get the nine hours of nightly sleep that experts believe teenagers need. Changing school schedules so that students do not have to be at school until 8:30 a.m. or later could allow students to start catching up on some of that missing sleep.
More Well-Rested Students Perform Better in School
According to the Mercury News, reporting on a Silicon Valley school district’s proposed change in school start times, “fully rested teens have improved memory, reaction time, mood and athletic performance, according to researchers.” The article also notes that school administrators who support the change are hopeful that later school start times would improve attendance and reduce student involvement in traffic accidents.
The results from school districts that have made the switch to later start times seem to support these hopes. In 2008, a New York Times opinion column on school start times noted that when schools in Jessamine County in Kentucky changed their start times from 7:40 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., “attendance immediately went up, as did scores on standardized tests.” A change in school start times in Kentucky’s Fayette county corresponded with a reduction in teen involvement in car crashes.
Why Some Resist Later School Start Times
Of course, as with any change in our educational system and traditions, there is another side to the argument. Some opponents of the 8:30 am start time find potential faults with the new schedule.
Conflicts with Athletic Schedules
Those who argue against later school start times say that changing school schedules will cause conflicts with athletic schedules. Later school start times would inevitably mean pushing back the times for after-school practices.
However, according to the New York Times, such changes in athletic practice schedules in districts in Kentucky and Minnesota did not correspond with significant changes in student participation in athletic activities. In addition, David Reilly, the principal of Woodside High School, notes that conflicts between classes and athletic schedules already arise, even with current start times.
This video from CBS News reports on how the Seattle Schools found later school start times were beneficial.
Some parents and school board members also worry that pushing back school start times could cause logistical complications for the parents and school bus drivers who must transport students to and from school.
The National Sleep Foundation addresses this potential problem on its website, suggesting that some school districts have flipped elementary school and high school start times. Thus, bus drivers serve elementary school students first before serving high school students. School districts might also consider working with local public transportation systems to get high school students to school at these new start times.
Resistance to Change
Some may not support changing school start times simply because they do not think the potential benefits would be enough to justify the inconvenience and discomfort of change.
However, the tide appears to be slowly changing; every day, more and more school districts are considering or implementing changes in school start times. As the school districts that have made the plunge continue to report the positive results they’ve witnessed, resistance to the change may start to fade away.
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