New York State School Boards Association

Changing high school start times: science paves the way

by Barbara Mauro

On Board Online • July 25, 2016

Barbara Mauro
Area 7 Director

When we receive a proposal to create a program or change some aspect of the way our district operates, we school board members often ask two questions:

(1) Is the proposal "evidence-based?" We want to make decisions based on facts, not opinions or hunches. Who among us does not feel reassured when our school administrators can provide summaries of scientific research to back up a new idea?

(2) Is the proposal in the best interest of our students? Sometimes answering this question requires a lot of analysis and consideration of alternatives. We also like to apply common sense: Will the proposal make sense to the community? Will it be a good fit for our district?

Imagine a school initiative with an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that it would be a boon to the health and well-being of our students, and less voluminous but high-quality evidence suggesting that it may encourage academic gains as well. Would you be interested? If so, you should consider a later start time for your high school.

Sleep deprivation is a widespread and chronic health problem among adolescents, according to experts. Early morning school start times just don't jibe with the body clocks of teenagers.

According to the National Sleep Foundation and an article published in Scientific American:

  • Researchers have found that "circadian rhythms shift during the teen years, pushing boys and girls to stay up later at night and sleep later into the morning."
  • On school nights, teenagers get less than 7 hours of sleep, even though on average they need more than 9 hours of sleep to optimize health, performance, and brain development.
  • Circadian rhythms put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock due to biological changes involving melatonin levels in the brain. Starting around age 13, the phase shift becomes stronger through the mid-teens, peaking between the ages of 17 to 19.
  • When the clock says it's morning and time to get up for school, the teenage body still feels that it's the middle of the night and has not had enough sleep to be rested and wake up feeling alert.

The National Sleep Foundation says sleep-deprived teens "are unable to maximize the learning opportunities afforded by the education system, since sleep deprivation impairs their ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information." Other personal and societal problems linked to sleep deprivation include increased risk of "drowsy driving; emotional and behavioral problems such as irritability, depression, poor impulse control and violence; health complaints; tobacco and alcohol use; impaired cognitive function and decision-making; and lower overall performance in everything from academics to athletics."

What happens when districts change to later high school start times? The evidence seems to have reached a tipping point indicating that there are both health and academic benefits. "In the past three years . scientific studies have piled up, and they all lead to the same conclusion: a later start time improves learning," according to an article called "School Starts Too Early," on www.scientificamerican.com . (The article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Scientific American under the title "Sleeping through High School.")

The article references the work of Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota. Her study tracked over 9,000 students in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming. She found that "after one semester, when school began at 8:35 a.m. or later, grades typically rose a quarter step in math, English, science and social studies."

Other research noted in the article shows that ".the later the delay, the greater the payoff ... The key is allowing teens to get at least eight hours of sleep, preferably nine."

Concerns about after-school activities, jobs, sports and bus transportation are the usual conversation stoppers when the topic of moving to a later high school start time is brought up. "Changing the start time of any school engenders the same kind of emotional reaction as does a district's deliberations about the closing of a school or making school boundary changes," Wahlstrom wrote in Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. "The time that a school starts is felt to be sacrosanct by those who have come to rely on it as a predictable part of their day and life. In a sense, the time that school starts is like a community norm. It predicts the rhythm of the day and the rhythms of personal and work schedules."

These factors and the natural resistance to change can make it difficult if not controversial for any district to move to a later start time. It is important for a district to create a decision-making process that involves all stakeholder groups. Planning and buy-in are key.

Some districts have switched bus schedules in the morning to transport elementary students first, which can work out for the better since younger children are more awake and alert earlier in the morning. If multiple districts take the plunge together, other aspects of scheduling could be addressed at the same time, such as a common high school bell schedule in order to remove a current barrier to distance learning.

NYSSBA is a resource for you and your board. When you are contemplating a policy change and wonder what the research says, don't hesitate to contact NYSSBA. It's your source for information, training, advocacy and custom services.


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