High school students would benefit from later start times

April 10, 2013 

Research-based best practices. This phrase gets thrown around the education world enough to provoke eye-rolling rivaled only by the groaning that accompanies the ubiquitously annoying “safety issue.” Play the Research-Based Best Practices card, though, and you trump all others.

The eye-rolling ensues because so often “research” can generate divergent claims and policies. Witness the long-running phonics vs. whole language debate.

Each side has its logic and evidence to support their curricular preferences, so education policy can end up looking like it actually follows personal tastes or gut feeling. In such an environment, best practice comes to rely on and reflect subjective evaluations, at least to some degree.

But sometimes all the logic and evidence overwhelmingly point in the same direction, and research does enable us to discern a best-practice approach. The importance of sleep is one such issue.

The science is clear. Our brain needs sleep, and needs it desperately. While we sleep, our brain busily reconfigures and stabilizes the learning we did the previous day, as well as process our emotional experiences. Moreover, sleep deficits – one study found a detrimental effect from as little as an hour lost each night for only a few nights in a row – weaken attention and diminish performance while we are awake.

Adequate sleep is important for all of us, but the situation is even more vexing for teenagers, whose circadian system – or biorhythmic clock – differs from everyone else’s.

When darkness falls, our bodies release melatonin, which starts the winding down process that ends in sleep. Teenagers operate on a delay, though. Their melatonin-induced slow down lags an extra 90 minutes after the dark, and after the rest of us. Their morning wake-up is equally delayed, so teenagers are basically more than hour “later” than the rest of us.

Turns out this circadian shift has substantial consequences for teenagers’ educational performance.

Several school districts around the country have demonstrated this by moving high school start times later in the morning, and thereby dramatically increasing student success.

The Edina, Minn., school district moved its high school start one hour later and saw remarkable results in just one year. The top 10th of the student body showed the biggest effect, with one-year gains in SAT performance of 56 points in math and 156 points in verbal scores.

Another study of 7,000 Minnesota high schoolers found that “A” students got an average of 15 minutes more sleep every night than “B” students, who in turn slumbered 15 minutes more than “C” students. Fifteen extra minutes of sleep, in other words, can have salutary effects on student learning and performance.

The benefits of late start go beyond academics to include safety and mental health, too. In Lexington, Ky., a later start cut teen “fall asleep” auto accidents by 25 percent. As for mental health, some researchers and doctors suspect that the lack of sleep at least partly explains some of the teenage moodiness, depression and even ADHD. These symptoms and conditions are similar to those arising from sleep deprivation.

It seems clear, then: Research indicates that the best practice for scheduling high schoolers’ lives is to start school later in the day. The sleep research is clear on another piece of good news. When students are better rested, a shorter school day serves their educational needs perfectly adequately. This means high school could start an hour later, but end only 20 or 30 minutes later, impinging little on the sacrosanct sports and extracurricular afternoon schedules.

Later high school start times is a research-based best practice that school districts should seriously consider. Most area high schools start around 7:30 a.m., although because of scheduling and staffing constraints some high schools effectively start even earlier, offering courses (often enrichment classes such as band or choir, or extra advanced placement sections) in a so-called zero period, which starts before 7 a.m.

In the Tacoma School District, starting time is 7:35 a.m. But with so many performance gaps to close, Tacoma would do well to move high school start times later. Such actions undoubtedly would serve students far more than would political abstractions about the costs and benefits of becoming a charter school authorizer.

Tacoma revels in its status as innovator. Let’s be truly innovative and try later high school start times.

Andrew Milton is an eighth-grade English teacher at Pioneer Middle School in DuPont and an adjunct professor at Troy University on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

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