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Wake Up, Sleepyheads: Should We Change School Start Times?

During one grim stretch of my teaching career, my high school band class was shifted to "zero hour"--a pre-school slot where "extra-curricular" courses were scheduled, in an attempt to give our students a more well-rounded education than the five official periods, all locked up with required courses, could provide. Yes, you could still be in the concert band--but you had to arrive at 6:45 a.m., and provide your own transportation.

At the time, I lived 35 miles from school, and I had a toddler who needed to be dropped off at day care before I went to school. The hardest part of my daily life was trying to be in bed no later than 9:00 p.m. myself.

The band limped through the year, attendance trickling off in the winter, mostly students who didn't need the credit to graduate--or those whose parents found schlepping their ninth grader to school at daybreak a huge hassle.  I heard from a lot of parents about kids--good students-- who stayed up until midnight to complete their homework in their five "rigorous" classes (now held in 65-minute periods), and how reluctant parents were to rouse their exhausted children at 5:00 a.m., even for an arts experience they considered important.

So--I have had first-hand experience with 15-year olds chugging coffee in my classroom, and barely-awake euphonium players taking mini-naps behind their bells. Teenagers are vastly more alert, cheerful and sponge-like when learning at 10:00 a.m. (provided they've had ample rest). No doubt about it.

Which is why I find articles like this one-- Research: Early School Start Times Hurt Students, Hinder Performance--so amusing:

The researchers pointed to previous sleep study research in advising schools to consider synchronizing class start times to adolescent biology. At the age of 10, the "biological wake time" is about 6:30; so school should start between 8:30 and 9, the researchers wrote. At 16, the wake time is 8, so the school start time should be between 10 and 10:30. And at 18, the wake time is about 9, so the start time for classes should be between 11 and 11:30.

Leaving aside questions about leaping to conclusions and implications (not to mention blame), based on a bit of scientific inquiry into circadian rhythms--how about this nugget:

Schools are "systematically restricting the time available for sleep and causing severe and chronic sleep loss." The result: "poor communication, decreased concentration and cognitive performance, unintended sleeps, decreased motor performance, increased risk taking and changes in mood pattern, specifically depression."

Yes, schools are causing all these restrictions, deficits and pathologies. If only schools would get the hint, and change start times, based on their new research, unhindered student "performance" would surge.

Here's the truth: "Schools"--and the people who work in them--have always understood that they only have so much time with students and only some of that time is prime learning time. Start and end times are part of a massively complex system of overlapping needs and goals, not contained in a single district.

Traditional K-12 school schedules (like traditional calendars) have been built and continuously tweaked over the past century, to incorporate the rise of school athletics, tiered transportation in far-flung rural districts, most efficient use of limited resources, and meeting the needs of working parents who may well need older children at home first, to mind younger siblings while parents put food on the table.

Every change in a school's schedule sets off a domino-effect series of unintended consequences. Move after-school sports events from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. to accommodate circadian rhythms? All the other schools in your league must agree. Bus drivers will be paid more overtime. The football team will be practicing in the dark. And on. And on. Anyone who's ever worked as a school leader could predict dozens of knotty conflicts to be solved before a single change could be made.

That doesn't mean I think it's a bad idea to shift start times. I agree: kids learn better when they're fresh.

But. Pushing for such a paradigm shift would first require a national commitment to investing in education--a Finlandesque conversation about values and means, stepping up to gut and rebuild systems that have been in place for decades, putting the needs of students first.

Investing in the best, most comprehensive, research-based models of public education we can fund, as the richest nation on earth, is precisely the opposite of our current national modus operandi. 

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