It is easy to lose heart over the prospects of improving American education, and in particular for narrowing achievement gaps between affluent and poorer students. Reforms are often expensive, politically fraught, or structurally complex (or all three). But once in a while, along comes a reform that is almost free, proven to be effective, and simple to implement. A perfect example: start high school later in the morning.
A raft of studies have shown that high school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later make for healthier, happier teenagers and higher test scores. There is a bigger positive impact for students from lower-income families, so later start times should narrow, even if just a little, the huge inequalities in educational outcomes. It is now well-established that most adolescents, as a result of changes in their body clock during puberty, will get their best sleep between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. Right now, the average American high school starts class at 7:59 a.m. Many start even earlier.
A report out this week from the Center for Equitable Growth argues for policies to narrow the school achievement gap. “Some of these policies are costly to put into practice because they involve complex social, economic, and cultural considerations,” concedes the report’s author, Robert G. Lynch. “But others, such as delaying the start time of high schools so that teenagers can get more sleep, are inexpensive and breathtakingly simple to implement.”
Breathtakingly simple may understate the challenge, but not by much. Changing start times requires some administrative effort, and in some cases a modest investment in school buses. But the benefits dwarf these costs: $9 to $1, according to a Brookings research paper. In policy terms, fruit doesn’t hang much lower than this.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in, urging 8:30 a.m. or later for high schoolers. Ignoring the evidence on school start times is the equivalent of ignoring the evidence on the harmful effects of lead paint exposure, asbestos or second-hand tobacco smoke.
Let me declare a personal interest: I have children at school in Montgomery County, Md. It is a leading district on most measures, but ranks in the bottom 10% of schools in terms of school start times. Right now, my high-school-age son has to wake – or rather, be woken – at least an hour before dawn.
But you don’t need a personal interest to read the evidence and join almost every researcher in recommending change. Money and structures are hard to change: timings are not. Both the American school day, with ludicrously early start times, and the school year, with ludicrously long summer breaks, is influenced by the rhythms of an agricultural economy, rather than needs of a post-industrial one. It is time for policy makers to wake up, and stop waking up our kids up so early.