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January 10, 2006

Death to the Morning!

Will Saletan picks up on a favorite obsession of mine:

Brain scientists want high schools to start later so teens can sleep. Research shows that body clocks run later in teens than in adults and younger kids: In teens, a sleep-inducing hormone doesn't start rising till 10 or 11 p.m. and doesn't let up till 8 a.m. Some high schools are starting later; others are considering it. Skeptical parents say adjusting the school day would 1) interfere with after-school jobs and 2) give in to teens who stay up late playing video games or chatting on the phone. But some scientists say 1) we should respect kids' sleep needs the way we respect their nutritional needs, and 2) sending them to school at 7 a.m. just teaches them to dope themselves with coffee.

Word! There's no reason schools should start at 7:30, rather than 8:45 or 9. More to the family values point, the actual impact of such an early beginning is an early end, meaning teens have plenty of time to hang out afterschool while their parents are still at work. The average schoolday, in my experience, is 7:30 to 2:30. But given the rise in dual-worker families, having kids leave campus closer to five would be good for everyone, so why not make it 9:30 to 4:30? Nobody, after all, has the energy to get into trouble before 8am, and after five, as I well remember, it gets much harder.

January 10, 2006 | Permalink


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How did the early start come about? Is it a relic from dawn rising, dusk retiring? In Britain the school day starts at around 9.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jan 10, 2006 11:53:31 AM

Ditto Canada.

Posted by: opit | Jan 10, 2006 12:16:31 PM

Is the early school day start a remnant of the rural farm dominance era?

Connected: why did the classic 'office' day get defined as 9-5 (although that day is often quite longer), but laboring jobs (in construction, for instance) often start before 8AM?

What do the defenders of the status quo on school start-time offer as talking points? I can't think of any reason to continue present practice.

Both the science evidence on sleep hormones for teens and the social evidence of the undesireable nature of unsupervised afternoons seem to make a very strong case for change.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 10, 2006 12:18:41 PM

What do the defenders of the status quo on school start-time offer as talking points? I can't think of any reason to continue present practice.

Off the top of my head:

Transportation costs could go up quite a bit, both for parents and schools, especially if the high schools and, say, the elementary schools had different start times. The school district could, in theory, have to purchase more buses. As I recall, many schools avoid changing the start time because they see it as too expensive.

Also, sports teams presumably want school out earlier rather than later, so they can hold practices while it's still light out. This is where a lot of opposition might come from; they would certainly never agree to 9:30 to 4:30.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jan 10, 2006 12:28:21 PM

What I want to know is, what's the evolutionary origin of this phenomenon? Clearly it has something to do with fertility, but how exactly I have no idea.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 10, 2006 12:48:59 PM

Brad's point about sports teams and daylight practice is interesting, but considering that many (most?) sports don't practice outdoors in the winter anyway, I'm not sure it's justification enough for maintaining the early end time of school.

I don't remember anymore when my high school day ended, but I vivdly remember that it started at 8:20 AM.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jan 10, 2006 1:07:34 PM

I disagree with brad plumer. A shift in start times would actually cause the cost of busing students to decrease since you would need fewer bus drivers and shorter routes if you were staggering the times of lower, middle, and high schoolers. In fact that is already what they do in my nephew's suburban school district so that grateful parents get to stand with their variously aged children for an hour or more for different buses.

But that being said teenagers who started school later would inevitably be left alone at home to get to school on time without parental involvement. I think that's all to the good but a lot of parents (whose work start times would not change) might object.

Still, the idea that anyone cares whether parents and teachers might not like the change is absurd. Some school systems have unilaterally shifted to a FOUR DAY AWEEK SCHEDULE to save money without inquiring at all into how working families can make up the child care deficit.

Posted by: aimai | Jan 10, 2006 1:12:46 PM

aimai -- Ah, you're right, sorry, I was confused. Perhaps the problem is that times are already staggered and starting high school later would un-stagger them. Here's an old article from Las Vegas about the debate over changing the start times that suggests as much:

The main obstacle to changing the starting times at high schools is the cost of transportation.

The district currently transports more than 140,000 students a day with its nearly 1,300 buses. The district is able to save money by using the same fleet for all school levels -- elementary, middle and high school -- a schedule made possible by staggered start times.

If high schools started later, while elementary and middle schools remained on their current schedules, it would cost the district about $77 million because new buses would have to be purchased.

I imagine the details probably vary district by district...

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jan 10, 2006 1:36:46 PM

Oops, here's the link.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jan 10, 2006 1:38:59 PM

What I want to know is, what's the evolutionary origin of this phenomenon?

Keep in mind that it could be happenstance; that is, it could be unimportant for most of our human history and therefore a random side effect of adolescent hormone shifts.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Jan 10, 2006 1:55:17 PM

From Matt Yglesias's tpmcafe post:
New John Stossel show:

Are kids in the United States being cheated out of a quality education? American high school students fizzle in international comparisons, placing well behind countries, even poorer countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and South Korea. American kids do pretty well when they enter public school, but as time goes on, the worse they do. Why? School officials complain that they need more money, but as John Stossel reports, most of the countries that outperform us spend less per student than we do. There are many factors that contribute to failure in school, but according to some, foremost is the government's monopoly over the school system, which means that most parents don't get to choose where to send their children.

Could the reasons for this have to do more with lack of sleep, rather than low funding or government intrusion? Do students in other countries start school later in the morning?

Clueless, as usual.

Posted by: clueless | Jan 10, 2006 2:00:03 PM

But Ezra. If school starts later, how can we be sure that Mom and Dad are being responsible Americans and schlepping off to work, which starts between 8 and 9? What'll happen to the engine of our economy, hmmm???

Posted by: Brian | Jan 10, 2006 2:28:41 PM

There were a lot of interesting comments along the same lines in Heartland PAC's education discussion:


Like this comment from the DailyKos discussions:

Transmission (Daily Kos)
If I was going to do one single thing about scheduling, I would move back the daily school schedule by about two hours. Most schools start sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 am, and get out between 2:30 and 3:30 pm. This is no more convenient for parents than if the school day went from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm - it just changes which end of the day that driving the kids corresponds with rush hour, and which end of the day requires day care. But for children, it can make an enormous difference. Their bodies aren't capable of concentration at 8am, and middle-schoolers and high schoolers involved in band, debate, football or other clubs are waking up far, far earlier to attend their activities before school starts. Why not put the school schedule to a more central location in the kid's waking hours?

Posted by: Kevin Thurman | Jan 10, 2006 2:34:33 PM

Look at the brighter side, folks...

Some schools have a class period that starts at 6:40 in the morning. Most of the classes given here are either for the overachievers who want to get ahead or the underachievers who are dragging behind, but they still exist. (I know. In high school, I was in the second category.)

So imagine what that would do to your diurnal rythyms...

Posted by: Off Colfax | Jan 10, 2006 3:19:48 PM

Another area where the science on learning is completely ignored is foreign language training. All the science indicates that we should be doing foreign language training in pre-school and grade school; and that commencing in high school is a waste of time. Do we do it? No.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jan 10, 2006 3:40:17 PM

I believe the two big problems with this are highlighted above, and underscore the fact that adult convenience/adult issues drives much of this:

- I believe schools are staggered now in most places so that the high schools go first and elementary schools go last. You would either be reversing the stagger or piling all kids on at the same time staryting high schools later, both being problematic for a number of reasons. Also, I believe the early end times reduce the prospect of driving buses after dark, when accidents and kids crossing intersections would pose problems.

- It's not just that sports need to take place in daylight - although that's a factor in late fall and early spring. The afterschool activities issue is the hours involved in practicing the sport, rehearsing the play, etc. If a kid has a job with 4 to 6 pm start, that leaves a couple of hours for extracurriculars at the moment. A longer school day would push practice into the evening an pull working kids out of activities.

Now, are kids stretched too thin? Absolutely. That's a reason to uncomplicate their schedules. But do I buy this brain chemistry thing? Heck no. As an early riser most of my life, there's lots of ways to work a body clock. I don't drink coffee, and I didn't drink caffeinated beverages in high school (in the morning anyway); that little addendum became habit in college when I did schedule my classes for later in the day and was still a lazy ass about getting up. :) I think kids should stand up and speak out if they're opposed to the school start time, it's not for childless adults to say, really. But a smart kid would look at all the issues involved, and probably see there's not much of a solution, really.

Posted by: weboy | Jan 10, 2006 4:08:36 PM

I've found that no matter when I need to be at work or school, I will end up thinking that it's too early. When I started college, I was excited that classes wouldn't start until 9:00. Soon I was scheduling things for 11 or 12 if I could (it seemed like there was some sort of liberal-arts cabal that got those timeslots, though, while I had 7 am labs in chemistry and physics). My point is that no matter when school started, kids would have to go to school anyway, and they're always going to find it an imposition on their time.

Posted by: Sara | Jan 10, 2006 6:40:27 PM

Off Colfax: Some schools have a class period that starts at 6:40 in the morning. Most of the classes given here are either for the overachievers who want to get ahead or the underachievers who are dragging behind, but they still exist. (I know. In high school, I was in the second category.)

My senior year, they scheduled the AP Physics and AP Chemistry classes for the same time period during the day. The Physics class was over-full, so they wanted to break it into two sessions, but that room was booked all day long. Classes started at 7:20 for most students. So they created a period for those of us dedicated folks starting at 6:25 AM, so that we could come in early and get our AP Physics fix. I bought a coffee maker for the room, and we'd have coffee every morning during class... It was quite a good time.

They enticed us into this arrangement by offering us early departure each day. Fall semester that year I got out of school at noon every day. Spring semester, I got out of school at 1:30, but ended up having an hour and a half for lunch each day. That was a fun year...

Posted by: Brad Warbiany | Jan 10, 2006 9:47:37 PM

Hey, my other blog is devoted to this question so dig through the archives at http://circadiana.blogspot.com/

Posted by: coturnix | Jan 10, 2006 11:58:56 PM

"The average schoolday, in my experience, is 7:30 to 2:30"

Good God Almighty. At school in the UK my average day was 8.40 to 4.30. Get up about 7.30, breakfast with both parents, off to school, home about 5, parents home shortly thereafter, dinner together.

So what do US children do in the afternoons? Homework? Petty theft? Anomie?

Are teachers really happy with these shifts? Are parents?

"And as you look at the clock, the hands will inexorably slip round to four o'clock, and you will enter the long, dark tea-time of the soul."

Posted by: ajay | Jan 11, 2006 5:39:39 AM

I like the idea. My former high school starts classes at 7:40 AM; this was pretty rough when I was in high school. The only difference is that the US now has real coffee, rather than the horrors when I was young.

As for after school activities, they shouldn't have real problems, and they should take second place behind school itself.

Jobs - again, these should place after school.
The bus situation

Posted by: Barry | Jan 11, 2006 9:05:31 AM

No, teachers are *not* generally happy with the current hours. I teach senior English, and we begin at 7:15. First period I have an Honors class, and I can assure you, it is a struggle just to keep them awake-- never mind focused on difficult material like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Most of the older students, however, do work after school, and probably would complain about getting out later for that reason.

Posted by: Amy | Jan 11, 2006 1:36:53 PM

I don't know where the pre-dawn rising-required start times for school began. Couldn't have been the farming era because back then school days were actually shorter. Farm kids had to do their morning chores before school and they needed to get home early to do their afternoon chores before supper.

In our school district the high school starts first, then middle school, then grade school. This could easily be flipped without it costing the school district added transportation costs. Starting the school day at 9:00, you could stil end it at 3. Plenty of time for afternoon practices.

The main force against a change is the same force that works again all change: The "But we've always done it this way" phenomenon.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Jan 12, 2006 10:41:01 AM

Reversing the stagger is problematic for a couple of reasons: High schools tend to draw from a wider radius than elementary schools (small kids, walking distances, etc), so there's more drive time involved; you wouldn't be buying more time, you'd be forcing younger kids in earlier than needed to allow for bus driving time. Also, reversing the stagger puts elementary school kids in class at or before 8. What's the sense in that? Especially if you then turn the youngest kids out at the earliest hour, affecting parents who work, as well as older kids who might otherwise be available to babysit. I think there's a lot of interlocking pieces to these decisions, and it's hard to just undo them.

Posted by: weboy | Jan 12, 2006 12:47:40 PM

Please don't start school later.. I'm a 13 year old kid and I know what its like. if school starts later we will have ample time to do chores homework hang out with friends ect.

Posted by: Zachary Lemieux | Jan 26, 2006 9:43:57 AM

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