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New Report Says U.S. Schools Start Too Early in the Morning

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A new report by two sleep experts urges policymakers to start the school day later, saying it's a move that's backed by a review of the latest research on school start times and adolescent health.

Paul Kelley of the University of Oxford's Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and Clark Lee, a senior law and policy analyst at the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, make their case in a report released by the Education Commission of the States on Tuesday.

"Sleep loss associated with early school start times can damage adolescents' learning and health," Kelley and Lee write. "Later starting times, by contrast, are associated with longer sleep, better learning, and reduced health risks."

In adolescence, the biological clock, which controls the sleep-wake cycle, alertness and performance rhythms, and metabolism, among other things, changes, delaying sleep/wake cycles by three hours for older teenagers and people in their early 20s, the researchers explain. That means that requiring high school students to show up for class at 7 a.m. is like asking an adult to start work at 4 a.m.

Studies show that students' performance suffers when they start school at an early hour and improves when the schedule allows them to sleep in a bit, Kelley and Lee say. Among the research findings they cite:

  • In one study, middle school students improved their test scores when school started later, and their scores remained elevated two years later in grade 10.
  • A 2011 study from the United States Air Force Academy found that the earlier its students started classes, the worse they did in those classes. In addition, the earlier students had their first class, the lower their achievement in all classes taken on the same day.
  • After high schools in Minneapolis introduced later start times, parents reported that their children were "easier to live with" and that families had "more conversation time."

While legislators in some states, like Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts, have shown interest in implementing later school start times for their students, most U.S. schools start before 9 a.m. Schools in the United Kingdom and New Zealand start at 10 a.m. or later for older adolescents, the report authors note.

"Changing community habits based on conventional wisdom can be difficult and needs to be handled confidently," Kelley and Lee write.

"Current early start times have determined timing of other activities (bus transportation and student athletics, for example) and organizers of these activities may resist change. Although most students (and increasingly parents) would support change, there will remain some who are opposed to it. These are not reasons, however, for stakeholders to avoid considering options for reasonable and appropriate changes to school start times."

For more on school district efforts to implement later start times, check out this article from Education Week's Gina Cairney.

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