The school board in Anne Arundel County, Md., issued a report last week that addressed the possibility of starting class later, especially for high school students in the county. The report is available here (PDF).
The report considered three plans that would effectively shift the start times. For most of the options, particularly those that would delay the start time for high school, the report says the district would have to purchase about a hundred new buses, hire new bus drivers, and mitigate any impact on after-school activities. These options would cost the district $5.2 to $8.4 million, according to the report.
But the Anne Arundel County Chapter of the grassroots group Start School Later isn’t about to take the district’s word for it. “We are … disappointed that the report was written without considering the many creative, out-of-the-box ways that communities all over the country have found to return to later, healthier hours,” the Capital Gazette quoted the group’s spokesperson, Heather Macintosh, as saying.
High schools in the county now start at 7:17 am, the earliest in all of Maryland and not too far behind the earliest start times in the nation. The next earliest high school start time in Maryland is 7:25 in Calvert, Montgomery, Howard, and Queen Anne’s counties. Several counties start their high schools at 7:30, and only Washington County starts after 8:00, with an 8:45 start time.
Research starts to recommend later high school start times
In the early 1990s, sleep researchers led by Mary Carskadon at Brown University found that circadian rhythms drive the sleep-wake patterns in adolescents. When puberty begins, so does a “phase shift.” Adolescents go to bed later and rise later than younger children. And they’re usually unable to fall asleep any earlier than about 11 pm. They usually go to bed later and need to sleep in to get the sleep they need. Some of the first recommendations to school districts to delay start times came in 1994.
Dr Carskadon suggests lack of sufficient sleep in teenagers puts them at risk for cognitive and emotional difficulties, poor school performance, accidents, and psychopathology. She is on record as calling the practice of having teens in class before 8:30 “abusive.” Others have called the practice “deleterious” and “cruel.” For more information, please consult schoolstarttime.org.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said about 70 percent of high school students in America are not getting the recommended amount of sleep. “Many adolescents are not getting the recommended hours of sleep they need on school nights. Insufficient sleep is associated with participation in a number of health–risk behaviors including substance use, physical fighting, and serious consideration of suicide attempt,” said Lela McKnight–Eily, PhD, who works in CDC’s Division of Adult and Community Health. “Public health intervention is greatly needed, and the consideration of delayed school start times may hold promise as one effective step in a comprehensive approach to address this problem.”
Several other studies (here, here, and here) report the same thing: teens are predisposed, by their biology, to sleep between 11 pm and 8 am, and starting school before 8:30 is therefore not good for the health of teenagers. When it comes to any positive effect the delay has on school performance, however, different studies have produced conflicting results, some very good, others more neutral with regard to grades but positive in terms of attendance and enrollment rates as well as helpful in terms of reducing the amount of self-reported depression.
Absence of non-financial opposing viewpoints
Parents across the country who are against delaying the start times for high school—and that’s about half of them on some surveys—suggest all this sleep-deprivation research is just bad science. Frankly, I’m sorry to give these viewpoints space in this article, but it’s actually the only commentary I can find on the Internet that puts a non-budgetary argument out there against delaying the high school start times.
Last month, the school district in Ann Arbor, Mich., considered delaying the start time for its high schools and conducted a parent survey to see what parents thought of the idea. Some information about this survey is available here, but board members, in addition to the added transportation costs, cited conflicting scientific evidence as well.
This isn’t really a valid viewpoint, either, just more smoke and mirrors from a public school district that can’t or doesn’t want to spend the money. Over all, there isn’t a single study that suggests starting later will cause harm or decrease students’ performance in school. The “conflicts” we have found and that school districts looking mainly at budgets are calling up from the depths of the Internet vary in terms of how much school performance improved. The change was always positive, though, after high school start times were changed from the 7 am hour to the 8 am hour.
Oh, the questions they can ask
The report from Anne Arundel County asks, but does not answer, the following question:
Were high schools to start later, what evidence is there that students will not simply stay up later to compensate for the later start time, thereby negating any positive impact upon wellness?
They can’t be serious! The “circadian rhythms” referenced in most of the research describe the times of day teenagers should be sleeping, including up to about 8 am. Given the chance, their brains will tell their bodies to sleep. By asking this question, adults are showing their misconceptions about research findings and instead speculating on what hypothetical kids will do in a hypothetical situation. It’s nothing more than a veiled attempt to undermine research that has been on the books, part of the published scientific record, never retracted, for decades.
One thing I must point out, though, is that teenagers today have access to more technology for entertainment or communication in their bedrooms than they did when many of the current studies began. A prominent 10-year study did find that “increased presence of technologies is associated with later sleep times and daytime sleepiness among [high school freshmen].” But even considering the presence of technology, 12th-graders—perhaps more aware of sleep needs than freshmen—experienced less sleep loss on school nights and less daytime sleepiness when school started later in the morning.