The ABC School of School Management
"They’ll have better attendance, wreck fewer cars and be more agreeable. All we have to do is let high school students sleep in."
You know a school or a school district is in trouble when the strategic plan follows the principles of the ABC School of School Management--Administration By Convenience. One of the best indicators of an adult-focused environment, one that is practicing the principles of ABC, is when research is blatantly ignored in favor of current practice. Last year I wrote, "At a time when the focus is on firing principals and teachers, here is an easy way to raise student performance by as much as 10%. Your start time dramatically impacts academic achievement, behavior, motivation, and student engagement. I pointed to a student-developed video that continues to be true "conversation starter."
A reader wrote me saying, "When my family moved out of the DC area, we went from a 7:20 high school start time to an 8:20 high school start time. My older kids had a VERY hard time with 7:20; my son, in particular, had a body clock that just wouldn't let him sleep before midnight. Now, my younger kids handle the 8:20 high school start time with no trouble at all. That hour has made all the difference in the world. If school bus routes are truly running these start-time decisions, then flipping elementary and high school times is perfect. Of course, those parents who use elementary school as a convenient day care would have trouble with the switch--but those problems should not be allowed to override brain science."
Science says, "Let them sleep."
Today, so-called experts insist that schools use research-based strategies to teach students. Those same experts consciously turn their backs on research that would be inconvenient for them to implement.
The consensus in the field — informed by a large Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of American teens — is that adolescents need about nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep a night. Most get less. "Teens are caught in a tug of war between their biology and rules and schedules put in place by adults. Biology is losing."
In Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, author Po Bronson points out a number of key scientific facts relating to teens, sleep, and achievement:
- 60% of high schoolers report extreme daytime sleepiness.
- 25% of high school students report that their grades have dropped due to lack of sleep.
- Between 20% and 33% of high school students are "falling asleep in class at least once a week."
- "Children--from elementary school through high school--get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago.
- Loss on one hour of sleep has been proven to impact academic performance, emotional stability, obesity, and ADHD.
- "The performance gap caused by an hour's difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader. Which is another way of saying that a slightly sleepy sixth-grader will perform like a mere fourth-grader. A loss of one hour of sleep is the equivalent to (the loss of) two years of cognitive maturation and development."
- Loss of sleep can "impair children's IQ as much as lead exposure."
- "Tired children cannot remember what they just learned."
Over the span of my career, I have heard many a colleague attribute bad student behavior to hormones. However, when it comes to actually applying science to address hormones, adult convenience again prevails. "A Day in the Life of a Sleepy Student," points out that "hormones play a role. Our brains produce the hormone melatonin as they prepare to sleep. Synthetic forms are sold over the counter as a sleep aid. (Mary) Carskadon found that melatonin levels in adolescents don’t rise until about 10:30 p.m. Sending your teen to bed at 10 is likely to lead to tossing and turning but not much sleep until the body agrees it is time. If a child who can’t sleep until 11 p.m. needs to rise at 6 a.m. to catch a bus, that provides just seven hours of sleep — two hours less than the average adolescent needs."
Minneapolis, which moved high school start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. during the 1997-98 school year is a rich source of data on the difference schedules make in teen health and achievement. Scientists at the University of Minnesota did extensive research on the effects and found the following:
- Students report fewer signs of depression than peers with earlier start times. Attendance improved.
- Student transfers dropped.
- Kyla Wahlstrom of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota in an analysis of the schedule change. “Having a later start for the first hour of class appears to enable more students to not oversleep and to arrive at school on time.”
- Academic performance improved.
- Participation in sports and activities remained the same.
- Principals reported fewer discipline issues.
- A reduction in the number of students seeking help with relationship problems
- Parents reported that students were easier to live with.
- Students did not stay up later at night. 10:45 was the typical reported bed time.
- Most slept an additional hour each night.
According to Colleen Shaddox’s story titled “Delaying School Start Times Causes Alarm” , while some schools have acknowledged the science and moved back high school start times, the reason many more have not "lies in a mix of logistics and politics.
The Bottom Line
I spent my first 28 years in education with a 7:20 start time. For my last two years I moved to a school that had an 8:30 start time. I can personally attest to the fact that one hour made a huge difference in the mood of the students and staff. They were awake! If I had the choice, I would never go back to the earlier start time. The argument that I most often hear in support of the early start time is sports and activities. As the Minneapolis study found, student participation in sports and activities was not adversely affected by the later start time. In fact, in my last year, our boys' basketball team won the state championship.