Rethinking school start times

by Susan Bergtraum

On Board Online • December 11, 2017

Susan Bergtraum
NYSSBA President

We all experience times of the year, like those between Thanksgiving and New Year's, where we are all trying to do so much with so little time that it's easy to get very little sleep.

If it's difficult for adults to function when they are sleep-deprived, what about teenagers? When you dive into research about teen sleep patterns and school start times, you find some eye-opening facts.

For instance, a recent RAND study estimates that a U.S. shift to a school start time of 8:30 a.m. has the potential to contribute more than $80 billion to our economy over a 10-year period. The gains relate to estimates of better student learning outcomes and future work contributions, not to mention fewer fatal car accidents on the roads.

As a reader of On Board, you probably remember seeing articles about later school start times, particularly at the high school level. For example, a 2012 article focused on one study of later school start times in a North Carolina school district. Researcher Finley Edwards' findings showed that a mere one hour school start time shift in the district resulted in better student math and reading performance, especially for at-risk students. And the time shift resulted in less absenteeism as well.

So - improvements in reading and math, less absenteeism - there's not much to dislike about that.

The Center for American Progress recently drew on aspects of this research to project national student learning gains on the 2015 NAEP Assessment if middle school students started school one hour later. They found that U.S. eighth-grade students' math scores had the potential to rise eight points with a later start time.

Now, with every study there are always limitations to consider, but it's safe to say the research on later school start times generally shows favorable outcomes for students.

However, relatively few schools have tackled the start time issue. In 2014, when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy brief about this subject that recommended 8:30 a.m. as the earliest start time for high schools and middle schools, 15 percent of schools were within this guideline. Since then, there hasn't been a significant increase in this percentage, according to an August 2017 online HealthDay article.

Here in New York State, some school districts have led the charge by heeding these start time recommendations.

Changing start times can be a big lift. Obstacles include transportation expenses, after-school commitments, and parents' schedules. There are also collective bargaining issues that would need to be worked out.

A recent survey of U.S. parents sheds light on potential misconceptions about how much sleep teenagers need. Nearly 50 percent of parents surveyed thought it was okay for teenagers to get less than seven hours sleep. However, according to HealthDay, research indicates that adolescents need roughly nine hours of sleep per night to function well.

No pun intended here, but I rest easy knowing that one of NYSSBA's 2018 position statements is to "support appropriate changes to state law, regulations and state policies that encourage and incentivize New York school districts to address the health issue of sleep deprivation in teenagers by implementing later school start times that are developmentally appropriate for middle school and high school students."

I will be the first to acknowledge that all of these are significant barriers to implementing new start times. However, rather than simply saying we can't, let's ask how we can.

On that note, as my NYSSBA presidency comes to a close, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for what you do for the children of our state, and for the cause of public education. I also want to thank you for affording me the privilege of serving as your NYSSBA president. It was truly an honor and an experience I will never forget. I will treasure it always.

I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season and a wonderful 2018.

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