Some U.S. high schools are choosing to delay the start of classes in the morning, and researchers are tracking the effects of this move on students.
A new study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed what sleep experts have been saying for decades. Teens are naturally driven to stay awake later at night and sleep longer into the morning than other age groups, and school start times have been disrupting this pattern — to students’ peril.
The research suggests widespread benefits to student health and academic performance when school starts even just one hour later, according to a report on the findings in The New York Times.
Since teenagers generally release the hormone melatonin later in the evening than adults do, they don’t tend to feel drowsy until around 11 p.m. Therefore, the researchers surmise, a later school start time can result in dozens of positive assessments of student health, safety and academic performance.
Jessica Payne, a sleep researcher at the University of Notre Dame unconnected to the new study, told The Times that “without enough sleep teenagers are losing the ability to not only solidify information but to transform and restructure it, extracting inferences and insights into problems.”
When classes start later, a wide range of teen health and academic performance measurements are all boosted. The Times notes that research conducted over decades consistently shows that teens who get better sleep lead healthier lives — for instance, they tend to be in fewer car crashes, are tardy and absent less often, and receive fewer athletic injuries. Good sleep also mitigates impulsive or risky decision-making.
The research is bolstering a long-standing movement calling on high schools to start classes later in the day. A grassroots nonprofit called Start School Later works with people around the country to petition their local education agencies.
Support is coming from the top, too: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted in August: “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.” Then in September, he said on NPR’s "Diane Rehm Show" that students will benefit more from class time if it starts later in the day.
Resistance to sleeping in is unlikely to abate anytime soon, however. Judith Owens, a sleep expert at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, told The New York Times, “It’s still a badge of honor to get five hours of sleep. It supposedly means you’re working harder.”
“There has to be a cultural shift around sleep,” she said.
Some policy-makers are also reticent to push back class times because the status quo can save money. For example, changing the start time for high school would cause conflicts in busing schedules and many districts couldn't afford to expand bus fleets.
Even in that worst-case scenario, the Brookings Institution proposes "simple" policy solutions to push back the time since "the negative effect on student learning from early start times is larger over the long term than the cost savings produced by tiered transportation systems."