We have got to change high school start times

I was meaning to write a post based on a recent Rand analysis that finds there’s a huge economic benefit to moving school (mostly high school) start times later.  I was slow in writing that up, but did have a great email discussion with an NC State Chemistry professor, Jim Martin, who is on our local school board.  Then, Aaron Carroll had a great piece in the Upshot summarizing all the evidence.  Instead of blogging that, I decided I’d write an Op-Ed for the N&O based on the data and my discussion with Jim Martin on all the political opposition this would bring.  Just maybe, this can help get the local political conversation going a bit.  I particularly wanted to address the fact (elided by Carroll and the Rand summary), that the benefits accrue to the general fund, but the costs are borne almost exclusively by education budgets.  Yep, that damn tyranny of separate budgets.  So, because it’s mine, here’s the whole Op-Ed:

The evidence is clear – it is time for North Carolina high schools to move back their start times for the vast majority of high school students and many middle school students. Here in Wake County, most high schools and some middle schools begin their day at 7:25 a.m. (and, in the extreme case of Apex High, 7:10 a.m.). Such early start times necessitate students getting up at 6 a.m. or even earlier. The research on school start times is compelling – early start times and wake-up times have negative impacts on our students and our communities.

Many blame modern life and smartphones, and question, “Well, can’t they just go to bed earlier?” The answer is no. Adolescent biology is different, and the truth is that teens’ natural biological clocks favor a later bedtime. Add a high-school wake-up time of 6 a.m. to that and all of a sudden the broadly-recommended nine to 10 hours of sleep for an adolescent becomes a literal impossibility. Studies have shown that when school start times become later, students respond not by staying up later but by getting more sleep.

As pretty much everybody knows, a well-rested human is a better-performing human, and the same goes for high school students. Perhaps the quickest, easiest way to achieve improved student performance across the board is not by addressing controversial issues like teacher pay or Common Core (though these are important issues), but actually letting our kids get enough sleep. The data are clear that districts that have shifted to later start times have better student performance.

Surely changing when high school starts would be expensive, with additional transportation and other logistical costs. Ahh, but there’s the rub. The latest systematic research from the highly-respected Rand Corporation says that later start times will actually result in considerable savings – where the economic benefits substantially outweigh the costs. While additional buses and drivers cost more, these costs are more than offset by the increased future economic productivity of well-rested students, as well as avoiding the costs (including loss of life) of early morning, fatigue-induced automobile accidents. The benefits Rand calculated did not even include the positive benefit of lower juvenile crime, which criminologists agree would decrease with fewer unsupervised hours in the afternoon.

With so many compelling arguments for later start times, it should be an easy change – right? How can people oppose healthier, more productive high school students while saving the state money? If only politics were that simple. The reality is, unfortunately, far more complicated.

 The first complicating factor – always a key source of friction in politics – is who pays the costs and who receives the benefits. In this case, the costs would come out of county school budgets. Alas, those same county school budgets will not reap the financial reward that comes from more productive (and alive, having avoided fatal car accidents) future citizens. While this clearly makes economic sense on the state level, it is hard to see school boards taking steps to increase their short-term costs when the benefits are long-term and do not even directly accrue to the county.

The second major complicating factor is status quo bias. People and organizations do not like major change and push back hard against it unless given a compelling reason. And this is a big change. All the evidence-based arguments of student health and economic benefit will come crashing up against the reality that this represents a major adjustment for teachers, administrators and families.

So, how to overcome these problems and bring about the change that will so clearly benefit our adolescents and our communities? This is a case where real political leadership is needed. If evidence for the benefits to young people and society outweighing the costs were enough, our high school students would already be starting at 8:30 a.m. We need politicians and intellectual leaders to clearly and prominently make the case that the difficulties of change are more than worth bearing and that counties will not be financially penalized for doing right by their students.

OK, then, politicians: time to step up and show us you are willing to listen to the evidence and take some concrete steps to benefit our students, schools and communities.


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