Science vs. status quo (high school edition)

Ugh, I’m tired.  Why?  My oldest started high school this week, complete with it’s utterly absurd 7:25 start time.  My own high school started school at 7:30, but I did not recognize until years later that I basically spent my entire high school years chronically sleep-deprived.  Then I got to college, never took classes before 9:10, and knew what it meant to be sufficiently rested.

I don’t know the history of the early high school start times, but when these decisions were first made, we did not have scientists and doctors telling us that these times were simply not compatible with optimal adolescent health.  But now we know.  The evidence on the inappropriateness of these early start times keeps piling up and school districts just keep ignoring it.  Status quo bias is a very, very powerful thing.  Very nice piece in the Atlantic summarizing the evidence on the matter:

These early school start times result in sleepy kids and frustrated parents. But, as of Monday, those kids and parents have the formidable weight of the American Academy of Pediatrics on their side. The organization released a new policy statement saying that “insufficient sleep in adolescents [is] an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.”

“The empirical evidence [of] the negative repercussions of chronic sleep loss on health, safety and performance in adolescents … has been steadily mounting for over the past decade,” wrote Judith Owens, a pediatrician and the lead author of the report, in an email. “For example, an important recent study published this spring by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom documented the positive effects of school start time delay in over 9000 students from eight high schools in three states, including improved grades and standardized test scores and up to a 65 to 70 percent reduction in teen car accidents.”

Lest you thing, “those damn whiny kids (and their whiny parents) just need to go to bed earlier,” it is not so simple:

Moving bedtimes earlier is not going to fix the problem, particularly for adolescents. Teens stay up later not because they don’t want to go to sleep, but because they can’t. Due to the delayed release of melatonin in the adolescent brain and a lack of “sleep drive” in response to fatigue, teens do not feel sleepy until much later at night than young children or adults and have difficulty falling asleep, even when they are tired.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics is focusing on school start times. “Although many changes over the course of adolescence can affect the quality and quantity of sleep, one of the most salient and, arguably, most malleable is that of school start times,” it says.

We actually give David supplemental melatonin every night and it generally works (he’s predispositionally prone to insomnia plus he’s got remaining Adderall in his system).  I honestly wonder if parents of most high school kids with these 7:30 and similar start times just shouldn’t be given their kids melatonin every night.  Now, of course, the obvious solution is right in front of everybody with moving the start times, but that is a lot of change.  I do understand the reluctance, but I wish people would listen to the science and their over-tired teenagers.

I think at some point enough school districts will make a change and show a clear relationship to rising test scores that it will finally catch on widely (that would be one good effect of our standardized test obsession).  Hopefully before Sarah goes to high school, otherwise I’ve got 15 years of these early start times ahead of me.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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