An Interesting Education Reform Idea: Later Start Times for Adolescents

David Figlio, a professor of education at Northwestern University, wrote about “low-hanging fruit” education reforms at Education Next. He highlighted one idea that has some merit.

Let middle school and high school students start school later. I know it is not something we typically discuss at Truth in American Education, but I thought this idea and some merit and was worthy of discussion.

Figlio writes:

Why start school later for adolescents? The answer rests in our biology. Circadian rhythms influence our sleep patterns, and the degree of light on the outside of our eyelids affects our melatonin secretion and feelings of alertness or fatigue. As children enter puberty, their nocturnal melatonin production shifts several hours later than what occurred when they were younger—or when they become adults.  As a consequence, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that adolescents sleep until at least 8:00 am. But thanks to a wide range of factors, half of all U.S. high schools start by that time. Given this discordance between natural sleep rhythms and school start times for adolescents, it’s no surprise that students lose as much as two hours of sleep per night when they start school in the fall relative to the summer.

It’s difficult to know exactly how this disconnect between teenagers’ optimal sleep times and school schedules affects their classroom performance because school districts that start high schools later might be better-resourced or otherwise support students better than do those that start high schools earlier in the day. One innovative study looks at U.S. Air Force Academy freshmen cadets who were randomly assigned to earlier or later start times (thanks to having a class in the first period or not) and shows that having a first period class substantially reduces achievement—both for the first period class and for the rest of the day.  And there exists some case study evidence from Wake County, NC, which changed middle school busing schedules, suggesting that later start times for adolescents improves test scores.  Other case study evidence from Minneapolis, which shifted start times later by an hour and a half, is more mixed, with increased teacher-assigned grades and other aspects of student well-being but no improvements in ACT scores. (Footnotes removed and replaced with links provided in footnotes.)

This reform is something I’ve considered during my twenty years of youth ministry experience. I can see the benefits and have plenty of anecdotal evidence. I’ve also experienced some advantages when I put this idea into practice myself when in college. My attentiveness and grades improved when my first class was after 9:00a. Before I get any snide remarks about staying up all night, I didn’t. Even when I went to bed at 10:00 pm or 11:00 pm (not an easy feat in a freshman dorm) I struggled with early morning classes. Now that I’m older early morning times do not impact me like they did when I was young (even when I get to bed late).

It is something local school districts should consider, but what I don’t want to see is top-down decision making. I certainly like outside-the-box ideas like this instead of one-size-fits-all standards or an increase in standardized testing. I also think it will make a greater impact on student achievement.

What do you say? Leave a comment below.

3 thoughts on “An Interesting Education Reform Idea: Later Start Times for Adolescents

  1. I wish I thought this would help kids to concentrate better, etc. Perhaps it will make a small difference, and certainly makes the mornings more pleasant, so why not? At our local high school, the swim team has to practice at 5 a.m., in order to be finished before classes start at 7.30. So that means those swimmers have to get up around 4 a.m. Ouch.

  2. Our schools are considering this. I think most people agree and understand it would be better. (if you have kids, you don’t need a scientific study, you know your 5 year old is up at the crack of dawn to play and your teen has to be dragged out of bed before noon.) The problems are the after school sports and the kids’ jobs after school. We will see?!

  3. Don’t be silly. This would require the schools put what is best for students first.

Comments are closed.