Does the School Day Really Need to Start So Early?

It's not exactly easy for teens to wake up for school in the morning.

Although they may not always be thrilled to spend the day in the classroom, this isn't the primary reason why they aren't able to get out of bed at the crack of dawn.

Teens in America are, in fact, sleep deprived.

"Teenagers need between nine and nine and a quarter hours of sleep," Dr. Danny Lewin, Associate Director of Sleep Medicine at Childrens National Medicine Center, tells TakePart.

Despite this, only 7.5 percent of high school students obtain optimal sleep (more than 9 hours), and over 68 percent reported insufficient sleep (less than 8 hours), according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.

You may be wondering why teens don't just go to sleep earlier if they have to wake up for a 7 a.m. class. That's easy for adults to say, but according to Dr. Lewin, "Teens can't really fall asleep easily before 11 p.m."

"Right around the time of puberty," he says, "there is a biological shift in the brain that leads to a change in their optimal sleep time. Teens are not biologically prepared to go to bed before 11pm. And then when we ask them to wake up very early in the morning, they're missing a very important chunk of sleep that is also critical for health."


So when teens come to school without getting the proper rest, Dr. Lewin says they have difficulty "coordinating the very complex series of activities that teens need to engage in in school—which is learning, attention, and peer relations."

An advocacy group, Start School Later, is tackling this problem head on. Because of their work, 5000 high school students in Columbia, Missouri will no longer have to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to school on time.

The group, together with local high school students, have successfully pushed policymakers to change the school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.

Alex Pratt, the director of the Student Advocacy Program for Start School Later, explains the benefits. "When we push back school start times," he says, "we see attendance go up, we see better attention in class, and we see better grades. From a health perspective, we see students who are less likely to get into car accidents, less likely to take part in a a wide array of risk behaviors, and less likely to get sick or injured in after school sports."

A later start time to the school day, Pratt says, "is the one of the most common-sense solutions that will help every age group and every demographic."

Students not only are doing better during the regular school day, they are also performing better on standardized tests.

According to economist Findley Edwards' study, Do Schools Begin Too Early? The Effect of Start Times on Student Achievement, as reported by Education Next, "delaying middle-school start times by one hour, from roughly 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., would increase standardized math and reading scores by 2 to 3 percentile points."

The change in start time was twice as large for students in the bottom third of test-scorers.

Start School Later's goal is to get schools to begin the day at 8 a.m. or later.

The biggest push back the organization has received, according to Pratt, is based on logistics. It takes a lot of work to change things in a school district, and starting times are not exempt, Pratt says. Common concerns are reconfiguring transportation systems and after school sports.

When the districts they've worked with do change the time of the first bell, Pratt says, these logistical problems seem small in comparison to the improvements in student performance.

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Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee |