Hitting the Snooze Button On High School

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What high school me would have given for just a few extra minutes of shuteye . . .

When I was a kid, I struggled to sleep. Late night programming flitted from my television during the weird hours. David Letterman into Conan O'Brien into Cheers reruns into paid commercial programming about miracle tooth whiteners. I was powerless to turn off the constant buzzing and restlessness. I just wasn't wired to fall asleep at night. Exhaustion would usually get the best of me by about 4AM and I'd toss into a fitful state of half-consciousness. Then the alarm would stab me in the skull, drag me from whatever state of slumber I managed to achieve, and remind me that another day of school had arrived.

I don't know where you go to school, but I was deep in the suburban heart of New Jersey. We were not farmers. We just rose with the rooster's crow (or its suburban equivalent, which was the sound of our neighborhood's lawnmowing crews as they cussed, hocked loogies and unloaded landscaping machinery).

By the time I got to school—which was at least an hour before I've ever had to show up for work as an adult—I was surly, temperamental and generally resentful that I was somehow expected to learn in my condition. It was nobody's fault that I was up so late (OK, maybe it was Letterman's fault). But in the morning, when I was trudging through the hallways, fumbling with my locker combo, and—during one horrible horrible year—enduring second period phys ed followed by third period lunch (at 10:45 AM, I kid you not), it was everybody's fault. I hated everybody and everything.

How gratifying to learn that there's actually scientific merit to my hatred!

According to the Start School Later movement, there's just no reason we need to be in school so early. In fact, they argue that the practice of starting high school any time before 9AM is largely out of step with the circadian rhythms of individuals between the ages of 12 and 25. The early-to-rise schedule contributes to sleep deprivation, detracts from academic performance and can even magnify a host of physical and psychological problems.

In other words, there's plenty of evidence that my expletive-laden high school morning routine was fully justified. So should high school start later? Is this even possible? Are there any academic justifications for starting school so early or is it basically a consequence of bussing schedules? (Spoiler Alert: It's the busses.) What are the practical obstacles to delaying school start times and would it even help? Is it really that big a deal?

To start with, yes. It is a big deal. Here's why:

The Science of Sleep

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that sleep deprivation is a rampant problem among the nation's school-aged children. Evidence has been mounting for a decade to suggest that teens simply aren't getting enough sleep, often with serious but undetected consequences. Chronic sleep loss can have a negative impact on the health, safety and performance of adolescents says Judith Owens, pediatrician and lead author of a recent Academy of Pediatrics study on teen sleep habits.

The Atlantic says that teens who aren't getting enough sleep will experience declines in mental and physical health, educational aptitude and “even the ability to drive safely.”

So exactly how much sleep should teenagers be getting? According the National Sleep Foundation, at least nine and a half hours every night. The National Institutes of Health recommends a slightly less ambitious but still generous nine hour repose each night.

Now, the last time I got nine consecutive hours of sleep, I had the flu. But they say it's different for teens. During this fragile developmental stage, the loss of sleep can have cumulative and potentially devastating effects. Teens need more sleep and yet, they're getting roughly an hour less every night than did teens in 1980. Granted, there are so many more tv channels now, as well as smartphones and the web, all providing semi-compelling distractions for the aspiring night owl.

Add in the ever-intensifying cultural emphasis on homework and extracurricular activities, and sleep is simply not treated as a top priority. Granted, an organization called the National Sleep Foundation is biased, what with their explicitly pro-sleep agenda. But even if you scoff at the admittedly pie-in-the-sky likelihood that any active person has the time for 9.5 hours of nightly sleep, the Foundation warns that 58% of 15 to 17 year olds are getting less than seven hours of sleep each night. A full 20% are getting fewer than five hours of sleep.

Part of this is cultural and part of this is attributable to the growing adolescent workload. But even accounting for all of these factors, the teenage years are entirely unique among stages of development.

Teens are simply programmed to stay up later. It's not that young people just prefer to haunt the witching hour. The Atlantic says that the adolescent mind is distinguished by a delayed release of melatonin in response to fatigue. This, and the lack of a sleep drive, means that teens either may not feel tired until the later hours or, even when tired, are more likely to experience difficulty sleeping.

So I guess it wasn't David Letterman's fault after all.

I was chemically predisposed to tossing and turning. And the misery of helplessly watching precious nighttime minutes tick away was always compounded by the inexorable approach of dawn, and school not long thereafter. The situation made me kind of a cranky jerk. But the consequences can be far greater than that. The National Sleep Foundation says that sustained sleep loss may contribute directly to depression, obesity, and suicidal thoughts.

The Children's National Medical Center says that, in fact, most teens suffer from “chronic sleepiness,” the risks of which also include heightened susceptibility to athletic injury, greater long-term risk of cardiovascular and metabolic dysfunction, and increased vulnerability to substance abuse as a consequence of compensatory stimulant use, be it caffeine or prescription medication.

A 2013 study by Hanover Research points out that we now have a greater understanding of the circadian differences that drive teen sleep deprivation. Researchers note that “While long seen as a cultural and psychosocial preference, later bedtimes among adolescents are now understood to be a biological response to puberty, the onset of which results in a two-hour sleep-wake phase delay without lessening total sleep requirements.”

In spite of the fact that teens are naturally predisposed to staying awake later, they are also quite often beholden to the earliest start times in their respective school districts. The result, according to a 2014 survey reported in the Huffington Post, is that 90% of teens are chronically sleep-deprived.

When Exactly Are Teens Supposed To Sleep?

The average start time for American high schools is 8:00 AM, which sounds pretty early to me but it probably sounds great to the many high school students that must be seated at their desks by as early as 7:00AM. These kids are standing at the bus stop by 6:00 or 6:30 AM. If there's to be any time for dressing, personal hygiene, and a balanced, nutritional breakfast, that first alarm probably sounds off at around 5:00 AM.

Working backwards from the night before—and presuming that the student in question pursues a healthy array of extracurricular activities—he or she will have returned home from field hockey practice, band rehearsal or mock trial just in time for dinner. Follow that with three hours of homework and, once again, allowing for personal hygiene, bedtime won't realistically occur any earlier than midnight, at best.

So remind us again, when teenagers should be getting their 9.5 hours of sleep?

Obviously, there isn't a lot of give in that schedule, which is exactly the point that the founders of the Start School Later movement are trying to make. The opening school bell offers the only wiggle room we really have short of lobbying for congressional approval of a 28 hour day (which totally has my vote).

The Start School Later movement is “a coalition of health professionals, sleep scientists, educators, parents, students, and other concerned citizens dedicated to increasing public awareness about the relationship between sleep and school hours and to ensuring school start times compatible with health, safety, education, and equity.”

They argue that the best way to intervene with the worsening trend of teen sleep deprivation is to delay the start of the school day to the extent that practicality allows. The idea makes a lot of sense when you honestly stop to consider the scarcity of time set aside for teens to sleep. I used to do it during math class, but that's not for everybody.

There's actually plenty of evidence to suggest that students fare far better when given the chance to sleep in just a bit. Hanover Research notes that even a 30 minute delay in school start time has been shown to produce statistically significant benefits from improved academic achievement, extracurricular participation, and mood to reduced truancy rates, disciplinary problems, and depression cases.

In fact, a report entitled “The Causal Effects of School Start Time on the Academic Achievement of Adolescents” revealed that improvements in student grades could be tied directly to the start time of first period. Researchers found that students who reported to first period at 7:50 AM outperformed those reporting at 7:00 AM by a margin equivalent to “raising teacher quality by one standard deviation.”

In other words, a delay in school start time has been shown to produce measurable benefits to student performance in ways that far exceed and outshine the results of major legislative reform packages targeting curriculum, teacher evaluation, and testing policies.

Lobbying for Laziness?

There are, of course, skeptics. Adults who probably have little recollection of how difficult it is to be a teenager tend to view such initiatives as evidence of terminal coddling. We're smothering our children by creating an excessively gentle formative experience that is inconsistent with the real world. Or at least, this is a popular refrain for disapproving baby boomers who don't realize they've collectively become the proverbial cranky old guy waving a cane from his porch rocker.

The Start School Later movement points out that facilitating better and healthier sleep opportunities for children is coddling in the same way as is requiring child safety seats in cars and outlawing indoor smoking in public spaces. If you think you'd rather toughen your kid up by making sure he or she gets a healthy dose of second-hand smoke, you might want to stop taking your medical advice from Mad Men.

Point is, giving kids more opportunities for sleep before school produces better health outcomes, which I wouldn't exactly characterize as destructive coddling. The Atlantic reports that in a recent study of 9,000 students from eight different high schools across three states, a delay in school start time resulted in better grades, improved standardized test scores (if you're into that sort of thing), and a compelling 65-70% reduction in teen car accidents.

Hanover Research confirmed the benefits of later school start times, noting that students tend to experience improvements in mood and alertness while engaging in fewer high-risk behaviors. Their studies also reinforced the claim that teen automobile mishaps are down significantly in districts with later start times.

In other words, if given the extra time to sleep, teens are using it.

A study conducted among high school students from Minneapolis also resolves one of the major presumptive critiques of the Start School Later movement. For those who worry that later start times will simply facilitate later nights, the case study suggests otherwise. During the Minneapolis pilot program, school start time was moved from 7:15 to 8:40 AM for a period of four years. Across the study, students consistently reported to getting an hour more of sleep than did their early-rising peers. The rate of tardiness and absenteeism also declined.

So of course, sleeplessness, insomnia, and adolescent circadian rhythms are all real things that make it difficult for teenagers to get to sleep at night. But it's also worth noting that Instagram, FaceTime and Stephen Colbert are real things that make it difficult for teenagers to get to sleep at night. WebMD says that too much screen time too close to bed—be it on a computer, tablet or smartphone—increases neural activity at exactly the time when these impulses should be winding down. WebMD also points out that the act of responding to an email or paying an online bill can create an inherent stress response, releasing cortisol into the body and generally placing the body in a fight or flight mode. This is especially true for today's overburdened teen, for whom the opportunities to study, do homework and complete extra credit projects may seem never-ending.

Of course, none of this is a recipe for a restful night's sleep. But there are things that teenagers can and should do to improve their odds of getting to sleep before sunrise. Unplugging is one of them.

Parents can play a role in helping their teens get to sleep by instituting a screens-off policy at a young age. Once the clock strikes a certain hour, it's time to log out. Granted, the policy, in and of itself, won't be very effective by the time a kid turns 17. But it is a great way to instill the habit of shutting down before bed. For teenagers, falling asleep at night takes discipline, which is not always in generous supply.

Getting into the habit of at least turning off the media could help. That said, it won't make the day any longer. Those precious extra minutes in the morning are a real difference-maker. Research suggests that the benefits of later start times are not merely incidental. The Children's National Medical Center says that early school start times share a direct causal relationship with teen sleep loss. The Center also says that numerous studies have demonstrated that start times before 8AM have been shown to significantly impede the ability of high school students to obtain sufficient sleep. In other words, the assumption that teens would use this extra time to pursue further late night frivolity is unfounded.

In reality, there are few compelling academic, health, or psychological reasons not to delay school start times. Any meaningful objection to such a move revolves almost entirely around its logistical challenges.

Busses Vs. Beds

According to The Children's National Medical Center, as of 2014, approximately 1000 schools across 70 school districts had successfully implemented delays in their high school start times.

Consistent with the findings we've reported throughout, students in these schools experienced a wide range of benefits. So why has this growing body of irrefutable evidence not sparked a wider movement for change?

Both for districts that have explored the idea in a preliminary way and for those that have never given it serious consideration, the reasons are largely the same. District-wide bus schedules present the largest practical difficulty. Most districts must manage a densely packed daily timeline of pickups and drop-offs among elementary, middle and high school students. Changes to the start time for one group could mean changes for everybody.

But this isn't quite as problematic as it sounds.

One practical consideration is the simple fact that elementary-age learners don't actually require the additional morning sleep recommended for teenagers. Perhaps you recall bounding out of bed to watch Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. I know I did. Well, by the time I was a teenager, the idea of sacrificing a solitary second of bonus weekend sleep would have seemed verily insane, even for Scooby Doo.

Pre-adolescents tend to fall asleep earlier, rise earlier and arrive at school more alert and ready-to-learn than do their older counterparts. In spite of this fact, high schoolers are almost invariably first on their respective district's bussing schedules. This suggests that simply swapping bus pickup times could go a long way toward correcting the pattern of teen sleep deprivation.

Naturally, safety concerns prevail in dissuading us from sending younger children to their bus stops or walking routes just as the sun crests the horizon. It is for this reason that Hanover Research endorses not just trading bus pickup times but pushing everybody's day back by 30 minutes. Even this modest time bonus could have a transformative impact on middle and high school students.

To be sure, every school district has its own complexion, its own geographical challenges, its own unique demographic, and its own contract with a bussing service. These factors certainly figure into the feasibility of improving school start times. While bussing logistics account for the single most obvious and stubborn impediment to making this change, there are other factors to consider. Among them, The Children's National Medical Center cites school budgets, parent work schedules, athletics, staff commute times, community use of facilities, and considerations for those who employ teens in the afterschool hours.

On top of these challenges, there are few comprehensive resources to advise individual school districts on how best to proceed with such an initiative. Because there has never been a unified nationwide movement to delay school start times, most schools can only consider existing case studies and extrapolate lessons for their own unique districts. But in reality, there is no uniform solution. Every district will navigate its own circumstances in search of a solution that benefits the many stakeholders that would likely be impacted.

The Children's National Medical Center is about as useful a resource on the subject as presently exists. Here within, researchers have compiled the most meaningful findings from the 70+ districts that have taken up the challenge. The Center offers a table (spanning pages 6-10 if you're scoring at home) breaking down the various strategic arrangements that different districts have taken to accommodate delayed start times. The table reveals that the solution is slightly different for every single district.

For instance, the Pulaski County Special School District in Arkansas flipped elementary pickup times with high school and middle school times, effectively pushing the opening high school bell back by one hour and five minutes, and moving the middle school bell back by 50 minutes. The Albany Unified School District in California simply pushed high school start time back by 20 minutes. Particularly innovative is the solution undertaken by the Denver Public School district in Colorado, which added two hours to the high school day and offered students the freedom to choose their own start and end times.

The Start School Later movement regards any time before 8:30 A.M. as an early start time. This recommended hour is reinforced by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says that middle and high schools should start classes no later than 8:30 A.M. in order to ensure that students are getting sufficient sleep. At present, only 14.4% of U.S. high schools start the day at or after 8:30 A.M. The majority, at 42.5%, start the day before 8 A.M. and 10% start the day before 7:30 A.M. For most schools, pushing the day back by something in the range of 40 and 70 minutes could make a dramatic difference.

Still, any number of districts may simply lack the stomach for such organizational reconfiguration. And that's fair. It's not like schools and administrators don't have other things to worry about. There may simply be the perception that this is one of those things that isn't broken. The imperative to fix it may not be all that strong.

But there are two major counterpoints to this logic.

First, the numerous factors identified above are all what The Children's National Medical Center terms “adult considerations.” Namely, all of these are for the organizational expedience of systems administrated by adults and not specifically to the benefit of the students themselves. Adult considerations are standing in the way of what science, medicine and patterns of sagging academic performance suggest is best for our children

Ironically, the findings reported by The Children's National Medical Center suggest that delayed start times actually serve the most pressing adult consideration quite well. By rearranging bus schedules—and likely by simply examining bussing patterns in search of greater efficiency—most implementing districts have actually seen meaningful cost savings. (Once again, consult the Children's National Medical Center table for a detailed explanation of these savings.)

The second major counterpoint to the status quo is the growing body of evidence cited here throughout suggesting that something is broken and does need fixing. We're not arguing that sleep-deprivation is the reason for our collective academic shortcomings, but research suggests that it is at least a reason.

Don't Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

Still, we concede that many districts must overcome genuine logistical challenges in order to delay high school start times. This is why Hanover Research recommends that any district considering these changes undertake a few preliminary steps:

Even after undertaking these efforts, not every district will implement the change. Differences between districts play a part in this inaction. For instance, says Hanover Research, delayed start times have been viewed more favorably by suburban parents than urban parents. Rather than speculate as to the reasons for these geographical differences, the distinction simply suggests that any districts considering the change should go to the appropriate lengths to determine the level of support within a given community. Any district weighing the costs and benefits of this change must consider public feedback, evaluate potential obstacles, and offer solutions that are tailored to its unique needs and circumstances.

With that said, the evidence is pretty clear and convincing. Whatever the practical impediments are to implementation, the likely benefits to the health, well-being and academic performance of our students is too compelling not to consider. Certainly, when we take a step back to reflect on the enormous financial costs, transformative burdens, and curricular difficulties that have accompanied major educational reform efforts—frequently without any sound empirical basis (cough cough standardized testing cough cough)—moving school start times back by 30 to 50 minutes isn't particularly radical or complicated.

In fact, we believe there is compelling evidence to call for a national mandate forbidding public middle and high schools from starting their day before 8:00 AM. In our desperate search for solutions to the ever-hastening slide in America's academic performance, we would do well to consider the empirical evidence yielded by the world's sleep experts.

Perhaps if we were all a little more well-rested, the solution would be obvious.

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