Careful Planning for Later School Start Times and Expanded-Time Can Improve Students’ Sleep, Health, and Academic Performance

At NCTL, we spend a lot of time thinking about alternative school schedules and helping schools and districts plan new schedules that meet their students’ learning needs. As students across the country are returning to school this week, a new twist on school scheduling is very much in the news. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a call for middle and high schools to start their days at 8:30 a.m. or later – significantly later than is the norm in most districts – to combat sleep deprivation for teenagers.

The research underlying AAP’s recommendation is compelling. When school starts later, a myriad of studies shows a wide range of health, academic, and behavioral gains for students. Students have better attendance; they are less sleepy in class; fewer students suffer from depression and more students experience greater motivation; and test scores and course grades increase across a wide range of subjects. Perhaps most bracing, a 2011 research study by Robert Vorona and Mariana Szklo-Coxe examining adjacent, demographically similar cities with high school start times that differed by 75-80 minutes found that 16-to-18-year-old drivers averaged a 33 percent higher crash rate in the city with the earlier start time over the two years studied. School-age drivers were also far more dangerous relative to adult drivers in the city with earlier high school start times than in the neighboring city with better-rested kids (though teenage drivers have higher crash rates than adults across the board, so…please, buckle up no matter what city you are in).

The in-school evidence is extensive, whether you take a snapshot that compares schools or grades within a district that have different start times or you follow the results over time to examine the results at a school before and after it makes a change to its start time. Of particular note, researchers found that by some academic measures, the lowest-performing students got the most out of later start times, improving test scores by twice as much as average students from a one hour delay in start time.

The change AAP is recommending would be far reaching. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that of the more than 18,000 public high schools – traditional district and charter – only 14.4 percent of the schools currently have schedules aligned with the recommendation, starting at 8:30 a.m. or later; in contrast, 42.5 percent start before 8 a.m.  Taken together, the average start time is 7:59 a.m.  

It does appear that a small but growing number of districts are coming to grips with the mounting evidence against early start times for teenagers and are considering changes. Anecdotally, it is clear that making changes to longstanding schedules is a complicated problem. Schools and districts have to deal with many issues when considering later start times for middle and high school, including teacher work schedules, coordination with elementary school schedules, the impact on students’ ability to work or provide childcare for their younger siblings after school, and parent reactions – some even give up when rather than solve administrative issues that bear no relation to the quality of education, like rearranging bus schedules.  

What’s clear is that with something as complicated as school schedules, significant and careful planning is required to make sure that the implications of changes are well thought out and that all time is used well. We are very familiar with the difficulties – and rewards – of overhauling school schedules. Our TIME Collaborative schools and districts go through a year-long planning process that includes a heavy focus on scheduling details. It’s the kind of thoughtful process that results in not just more learning time, but better organized and distributed learning time.  School leaders can use this planning process to consider students’ health and sleep needs too and make later start times a part of a comprehensive redesign that provides more and better learning time for all students.

More school time does not mean less sleep. In fact, expanding time strategically can mean more sleep for teens, as many schools have already proven. The NCES data shows that charter high schools are far more likely to than traditional high schools to comply with the 8:30 a.m. or later start time recommendation, with 23 percent of charters and only 13.9 percent of district schools meeting the standard. Charter schools are also far less likely to fall into either of the extremely early start time categories that NCES tracks. This is particularly significant because charter high schools are far MORE likely to have longer days than traditional district schools – 11 times more likely based on a comparison of the NCES data to our comprehensive database of expanded-time schools. So, many students in charter high schools are already getting the benefit of both more sleep and longer learning days. As more and more district schools redesign their schedules to add learning time to benefit their students, they will have an excellent opportunity to push back their start times too.

NCTL recommends that all schools and districts take AAP’s research and recommendations seriously and examine their start times as part of a comprehensive planning process that puts students’ needs first and provides them with the quantity, quality, and distribution of learning time that they need. Starting school later but going longer is a powerful formula for increasing students’ learning, health, and safety.