The dumbest policy in education

There’s a lot, but I’m going to go with the absurdly early start times for high school.  It’s 7:25 when I’m posting this– the start time for many Wake County high schools.   I’ll forgive my elders for making me start high school at 7:30 from 1986-1990.  But now we know better.  The adolescent body is simply not programmed to be up that early.  The result is less physical health and worse cognitive functioning.  Nice NPR story on this recently:

Sleep scientists argue that early high school start times conflict with teens’ shifting circadian rhythms. Beginning in puberty, “adolescents are programmed to fall asleep later,” says Dr. Judith Owens, who directs the Sleep Medicine Clinic at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. And she says many teenagers can’t fall asleep before 11 p.m.

Because teenagers need eight to nine hours of sleep, waking up at 6 a.m. can lead to a pattern of sleep deprivation. And that puts them at higher risk of a whole range of potential problems, from depression to automobile accidents.

So Owens says it makes sense to move school start times later. As it is now, “we are asking [teens] to be awake and alert at the time in their 24-hour clock when their alertness level is at its very lowest.”

A new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health finds that 50 percent of parents of students in high school report a start time before 8 a.m. And almost 1 in 5 parents report school starting even earlier, before 7:30 a.m. (See the full results here.)

Hmmm, well, why the continued late start times then?  Path dependence and status quo bias and semi-lame excuses:

Parents opposed to later school start times point to issues such as day-care schedules and after-school jobs. Coaches say later dismissal times would interfere with team practices.

But given the fact that many schools have already overcome these obstacles and moved to later school start times, Ziporyn Snider says, “the real problem isn’t sports or jobs or day care; the real problem is fear of change and failure of imagination.”

And failure to act, advocates say, is putting high school students at greater risk.

Hey, I managed to get straight A’s in high school while being chronically sleep-deprived (a fact that I did not realize till I got to college and never took a class before 9:10, but just because many kids can still succeed under the circumstances doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.  Would there be some hardship in the change?  Absolutely.  But in the cost-benefit, this is such a huge win that it’s just insane that there’s not more movement in this area.  You want high school test scores to go up?  Let the damn kids get some sleep!

(I’ll conclude by selfishly mentioning that next year David starts high school which will be the beginning a period of 15 out of 17 years where at least one of my kids– and thus often me– has to get up way too damn early).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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