published Friday, August 9th, 2013

Thompson: Early school start times lead to lagging performance

By Dr. Roger Thompson

Try this experiment — set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. Get up, dress, travel, and report ready for work at top performance level at 5 a.m. Does this sound inviting? Will I see your best personality on display?

While this request may seem a bit unusual, it represents the equivalent of what we demand from our teenagers who operate under early-school start times. Their typical day begins at 4:30 a.m.- 5 a.m. with travel by bus at 6 a.m. First bell sounds shortly after 7 a.m. Lunch follows at 10:30 a.m. with school dismissal shortly after 2 p.m. Sound familiar? It amounts to a recipe for disaster on several fronts, yet we sit silently in the grandstand and watch our educational leaders conduct business as usual without challenge in terms of whose interests are really being served?

Research into the science and physiology of adolescence has been active in this arena since the 1990s. The top name in the field is Dr. Mary Carskadon, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Her studies determined the nature of circadian biology in relation to the brain and a phase shift with the onset of puberty to later bed times and later rising times.

What this simply means is that adolescents are unable to fall asleep during early evening hours and must sleep later into the morning to accrue the necessary nine hours of sleep recommended for general well-being. Representatives from various medical fields began advising school leaders to eliminate early school start times for teenagers in 1994. A 2005 study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, concluded that school schedules are forcing students to lose sleep and perform academically when they are at their worst.

Sleep deprivation has an impact on both mental and physical health as well as their education. The positive effects of later school start times involve improvement in attendance and truancy rates, higher academic performance, greater motivation to learn, less depression, fewer physical health problems and significantly fewer automobile accidents. The negative list is much longer. Personalities show mood swings, irritability, depression, substance abuse, obesity, suicidal tendencies and accident prone drowsy driving. During school, there is attempted sleep during class time, low academic performance and behavior problems. After school activities remain unsupervised and often involve high-risk behavior patterns.

Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom conducted a major study (1995-2002) involving 17 Minneapolis area school districts after implementing a later start time. She found improvements in attendance and in their emotional and behavioral well-being. Both Minneapolis schools made changes at no cost. Others making the time change include Marion County in Ocala, Fla. and St. John’s County in Jacksonville, Fla. In Texas, school systems in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio all found ways to begin classes around 9 a.m. In Georgia, Cobb County and Fulton County have start times at 8:30 a.m. On the international front Monkseaton High School (U.K.) moved to a 10 a.m. start time as did Eastern Commerce High School in Toronto, Canada. Change of this magnitude and complexity appears possible when there is political will.

At the local level, The Howard School recently made the change from 7:15 a.m. to 9 a.m. Dr. Paul Smith, public safety coordinator for the city of Chattanooga, served as principal during this period of transition. He says, “the later start time, 9 a.m., was better overall but minimally. I prefer it to the earlier start time because the student’s alertness at the beginning of the school day was much better than at the 7:15 [a.m.]start time.”

Admittedly, a later school start time is not a magic pill. However, it is a piece of the puzzle that offers more academic promise than current design.

So where do we go from here? Almost 20 years have passed and we continue to allow this dynamic to operate without public discourse, experimentation, or creative solution. Do we accept present practice and compromise as our best effort or do we tap local talent and intellectual horsepower to meet the challenge? We need to talk!

Dr. Roger Thompson is an Associate Professor in the Criminal Justice Department at UTC. He can be contacted at

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inquiringmind said...

There are several problems with the author's take. The first is social, if you forgo the makeup then you ought to be able to get out of the house with a shower and breakfast in an hour.

The second is a technical question. Technically, "a study involving 17 Minnesota area schools"(Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom) raises a lot of questions on methodology. We do not know the details but you can't comfortably compare one set of school districts starting at one time with one starting later unless you do quite a bit of statistical planning. Are the districts the same demographically? Did the district compare one run for a year (for example) with an early start time to another at a later one? Even that is risky.

What was the metric used to determine one was better than another, was it a subjective opinion as quoted about Howard, “the later start time, 9 a.m., was better overall but minimally," or was there some quantitative measure such as test scores, or incidents of disciplinary action?

Really a poor article for a university professor unless the objective is political. This is hinted with his comment, "Admittedly, a later school start time is not a magic pill."

If the political/social motive is the purpose of the article, the best argument is practical: keep kids in school until the approximate hour parents return home from work and run schools with minimal summer break.

I will agree that it is hard to get teens in bed but as I recall my parents seldom let me stay up past 10 or 11PM and school started around 8-8:30AM. Most of my peers turned out ok.

Are 7AM start times a sign of fewer schools or longer bus commutes?

August 9, 2013 at 8:39 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

7AM start times are probably the result of having to use the same fleet of buses for both primary and secondary school. Given that teens are more independent, the choice was for high schools to start earlier, so that the younger kids can avoid bus pickup in the dark during winter (also gives more PM time for after school jobs and sports).

August 9, 2013 at 8:57 a.m.
LaughingBoy said...

As we all know, students will be able to choose what time they want to stumble into work when they enter the real world. It's good we have some eggheads who want to push their starting times forward so they can get used to that.

August 9, 2013 at 9:25 a.m.
Ki said...

LB, The School For The Arts and Sciences have had flex starting time for years. They don't seem to have a problem with that, and no one has ever complained. In fact, most jobs now have flex start time for their workers.

I honestly don't see why schools shouldn't have scheduled start times like colleges. Where there are also both day and night classes. After all, aren't schools suppose to be preparing students for college? Students would still automatically still receive the basic 3 R's, then sign up for other classes geared towards a field of study they would like to go into beyond school. Be it a Trade School, Vocational training, two or 4 year college degree. They could also sign up for extra-curricular and arts, creative and music education. The problem with the present day learning environment is the world has changed, technology has made children more advanced than every before, but schools forced them to remain in a one-room school house Little House On The Prairie learning atmosphere. Because of that, the students are bored and tuning out much more than they are retaining.

August 9, 2013 at 9:44 a.m.
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