Snowlflake Schools: Late Starts

Unlike the trend toward eliminating homework with which I strongly disagree, one current topic for public high schools does merit consideration:  Starting classes later in the day.  In most high schools around the Chicago suburbs, for example, first period begins at 8:00 A.M. or earlier, necessitating a wake-up time for most teenagers of roughly 6:30 A.M.  (Yes, this time will vary widely depending on the maintenance level of your teen, but fear of gender bias accusations and my two daughters prevents me from commenting any further on that.) Outside of one outlier study recently completed at Brigham Young University, most research suggests that teenagers need between 8.5-to-9.5 hours of sleep a night.  In order to get those nine hours (mid-point of that range) and get up at 6:30, teens would need to go to bed at 9:30 P.M. which seems unrealistic to most who know how teens function.  Start at 9:00, 9:30, or even 10:00 A.M., with the same hour-and-a-half-before-school-starts-wake-up call, and you can get away with a 10:30-11:30 P.M. bedtime.  That’s much more realistic.

These later starts would necessitate many changes in schools scheduled around the 2:30-3:30 P.M. dismissals that present starting times enable.  After-school activities, sports practices and games, students’ jobs, and baby-sitting responsibilities would need to have their start/end times adjusted accordingly.  Parents would need to alter some of their habits to accommodate later starts and finishes.  There’s little doubt that starting the school day later would disrupt the habits we’ve evolved both culturally and individually.  So we have to be relatively sure that this disruption and discomfort would be offset by the benefits of more-rested students.

And this is where things get less clear.  When looking at the studies where schools have pushed back their start times, most of the positive results have been in student behavior and health—fewer sick days, fewer discipline issues, and less need for psychological counseling have been the primary documented results.  There have been anecdotal reports of students being more alert and less moody, but those types of results don’t carry much weight with those focused solely on objective data.

And the gold standard of objective data for many—standardized test scores—haven’t increased significantly in the districts where starting times have been pushed back.  There are also those who argue that earlier start times prepare kids for the “real” world, that any problems with current early start times could be solved by better parenting (e.g., just “make” teens go to bed earlier), and that we adults who had these earlier starts turned out just fine without any of this “molly-coddling.”

My own fifty years’ experience in education (seventeen as a student in kindergarten through college graduation and thirty-three as a teacher) supports the idea that later starting times would be a good thing.  I hated getting up early in the morning for my classes as a student; it was only after many years of teaching and aging well into my thirties that I evolved an appreciation for morning hours.  I now love getting up early (5:30 most mornings), but it took a long time for me to develop that habit; and it took place well after my biological maturation had ended.  Kids need the opportunity to grow at their own pace, and anything which inhibits that should be resisted, especially when it is avoidable.

The chief obstacle to changing starting times could be buses.  Yep, bus companies dictate school schedules for economic reasons:  If we stagger start times, we can use fewer buses and save money.  So, high schools typically start first, then the middle schools, with elementary schools having the latest start times.  With this schedule, one bus can make three runs to service the different grade levels, allowing the bus companies to lower their costs by getting three times the use out of a single bus.  And since we have a hard time documenting any “concrete” benefits (better test scores) based on 9:30 start times, it makes it more difficult to justify the added expense of adding buses to make their runs at roughly the same time.   

So although I believe that later start times would benefit students and reject the idea that standardized test scores should dominate our schools the way they do, I understand the forces that are stopping this from serious consideration in most school districts.  What we need, then, is for everyone to come together to look at this issue seriously in order to study its merits.  What if we were to have two high schools in the same district start at different times?  We would need a baseline of relevant statistics in order to compare the outcomes fairly, which would take some compiling.  A partial list of important facts might include the following:  tardies, absences, deans’ referrals, detentions, grades, standardized test scores, transportation costs, and participation rates in extra-curricular activities.  Then we would have to conduct surveys on the more subjective aspects of the issue:  Teacher evaluations of class attentiveness and overall school atmosphere, student attitudes toward school, and parental views on impacts on their routines (it might be easier to get a teenager moving and eating a decent breakfast if they got more sleep, for example) and their children’s attitudes might be some of the areas from which to seek input.  It would clearly take some work, some expense, and the risk that after all that, you still wouldn’t have a definitive answer.  But with the sleep experts so adamant in their research on the negative aspects of teens not getting enough sleep, the challenges of understanding the relationship of school start times to adequate rest for growing children is well worth the time, money, and trouble.

Should the results of these types of experiments provide the smoking gun for later start times, the challenges would really begin in trying to institute this new paradigm on a larger scale.  But when it comes to the health and well-being of our children, the difficulties in instituting changes should never thwart our efforts to improve current practices.  It might be hard to imagine high schools starting classes at 10:00 A.M., but that shouldn’t stop us from determining if that would be better.

Typically, everyone likes to institute changes wholesale, if we have to change at all.  The simplicity of large-scale modifications, however, can’t prevent a more subtle approach which would help us to move gradually to something that could make a big difference in the education of our students.  It took a long time to establish the connection between good nutrition and learning, but we came to recognize that a decent breakfast is crucial for our kids’ learning and now provide one for those in need at no cost to them.  Sleep might be even more important to help our children do their best, and we shouldn’t let the logistics of finding out if this is true in relation to school start times keep us from finding out more definitively. 

For more on school reform, see James Crandell’s website



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