Nothing has changed in most of the 15,000 or so school districts around the US either. Education Secretary Arne Duncan may have tweeted his view that later start times are a “common sense way to improve student achievement,” but fewer than 15 percent of US high schools start before 8:30 a.m., the minimum acceptable time for middle and high schools recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Nearly 43 percent of high schools start before 8 a.m., and 10 percent before 7:30 a.m.
This inaction shocks sleep researchers and health professionals, as well as many parents who know the grim reality of trying to rouse sleep teenagers before sunrise. For decades, sleep scientists have been telling us why: at puberty, circadian rhythms shift later, not only in humans, but in other mammals as well. Typical sleep cycles begin around 11 p.m. for teenagers and continue through 8 a.m. This means that an early wake-up call (5 or 6 a.m. in many cases) not only allows a maximum of only six to seven hours of sleep, but it also requires students to wake in the middle of deep sleep.
Since the average teenager needs 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep per night, it’s no wonder that nearly 70 percent of US high school students get under 8 hours – and 40 percent get six or fewer. In addition, they’re getting this insufficient sleep at the wrong time, sleeping in on weekends or napping after (or in) school, creating a situation that amounts to chronic jet lag or shift work.
This wasn’t always the case. A hundred years ago, most schools (and places of business) started the day around 9 a.m. In the 1970s and 1980s, many schools shifted to earlier hours. Back then the importance of sleep and adolescent circadian shifts were little understood, and cost savings of running the fewest possible buses in multiple cycles was appealing. Even schools that didn’t run buses often found it helpful to match hours to those of nearby schools. As a result, many students today are required to be in class much earlier than their parents and grandparents had been.
These changes might have saved bus money, but they shifted costs to students and families. Sleep-deprived teens not only risk eating disorders and obesity, heart disease and diabetes, immune disorders, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide, but they put their safety and that of others at risk by walking to the bus or driving themselves to school on dark, deserted streets. Judgment, focus, and memory are impaired, and risks of tardiness, truancy, and dropping out increase, reducing chances of school success, particularly in disadvantaged children.
When public school times changed, the whole community’s rhythms changed, too: Today, “after” school stretches out to four hours (and fills up with activities), leaving many kids unsupervised at the peak period for adolescent crime and risky behavior. Elementary schools often start as late as 9:15 or 9:30, forcing working parents to send young children to before-school care as well as after-care. Families whose children are in multiple school levels often have start and end times that span two hours in the morning and another two in the afternoon.
Most people now perceive these adaptations as inevitable and normal. And this perception is the key to understanding why schools aren’t listening to sleep research. People who have adapted their lives to current school hours assume that they cannot adapt to changing them again. Fearing that new hours will disrupt commutes, daycare, teacher training, after-school activities, and so forth, they protest shifted schedules vehemently, sometimes to the point that superintendents have lost their jobs. It’s no wonder that school officials find ways to make later school start times sound as complicated and expensive as putting a man on Mars.
“One of the hardest things you can ever do as a superintendent…is to begin to tinker with the bell schedule,” said Deb Delisle, Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Education. “People go absolutely bananas over that. You can change textbooks, you can change report cards, [but] as soon as you tinker with that bell schedule – whoa, too scary!”
The good news is that finding ways to run schools at safe, healthy hours is not rocket science. Schools have, and continue to, run at many different times around the world, and community life always adapts to them. We now have plenty of success stories providing data that put the many dire speculations blocking change to rest.
Even the common sense speculation that later hours would just lead teens to stay up even later has
been felled. In every study to date, students actually go to bed around the same time, and get significantly more sleep, when morning bell times are delayed.
The hundreds of examples of schools that have found ways to run schools at later, healthier hours by prioritizing sleep, health, and learning provide empirical evidence that the challenge to later start times isn’t daycare or jobs or sports or even the cost of running more buses. The real challenges are fear of change and failure of imagination.
Combating these challenges will take more than sporadic local advocacy efforts. It will also take more than sleep research, however compelling. Instead, it will take treating sleep and school hours as fundamental matters of public health rather than as negotiable school budget items.
Once we start viewing sleep and school hours as equivalent to other public health issues like child labor, smoking, and seatbelts, objections to later start times will melt away. Making that happen, however, will require health practitioners, sleep researchers, educators, policymakers, and advocates to join forces, with a common goal of consciousness-raising and collective action on local, state, and national levels.
Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, is the Executive Director of Start School Later, a nonprofit organization 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.