Let Them Sleep? Later School Start Times Improve Graduation and Attendance Rates

later school start timesIn the current climate of polarized debate about best school practices and policies, it is refreshing to learn that there are some ideas that are supported by research and an emerging bipartisan consensus.

An increasing body of evidence is showing how later school start times are making a difference in students’ lives, including improved educational outcomes and mental well-being. Physicians have been advocating for later start times for more than two decades, and the body of literature linking adolescent sleep with increased student success has only grown in depth and rigor.

A new study by Pamela McKeever of Central Connecticut State University and her colleague Linda Clark found that delaying high school start times to 8:30 a.m. and later significantly improved graduation and attendance rates.

School districts “set students up for failure by endorsing traditional school schedules,” McKeever writes, and this practice continues even in the face of mounting evidence supporting the benefits of a later start time. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 42 states, 75%-100% of public schools start before 8:30 a.m. According to the CDC, school should begin no earlier than 8:30.

Early starting times are out of synch with adolescent sleep cycles – and, no, it’s not because they’re out late every night or glued to social media and video games. The adolescent body doesn’t begin to produce melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep cycles, until around 11:00pm, leaving adolescents with a limited window in which to obtain sufficient sleep.

Educators are in a pivotal position to become change agents and advocates for high school students by teaching all stakeholders about adolescent sleep. These changes accomplish what all educators and educational leaders aspire to: student success” – Pamela McKeever, Central Connecticut State University 

Insufficient sleep in teens has been linked to an increase in car accidents, substance abuse, suicide attempts, depression, even criminal activity. A 2014 study of eight public high schools by Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota, for example, found that the number of car crashes for teen drivers was significantly reduced by a simple shift in school start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.

In their study, McKeever and Clark looked at 29 high schools across seven states, comparing attendance and graduation rates before and after the schools implemented a delayed starting time. The average graduation rate jumped from 79% to 88%, and the average attendance rate went from 90% to 94%.

“As graduation rates improve, young adults experience less hardship after graduation, a lower chance of incarceration and a higher chance of career success,” McKeever told Reuters. Given the evidence, later start times could possibly serve as a mechanism for narrowing the achievement gap, McKeever added.

Of course, there are a few caveats to every study. McKeever did not specifically measure the amount of sleep each student in the study got, but instead relied on prior research that linked later school times to more sleep. She also acknowledges that multiple factors play a role in graduation and attendance rates, but it is clear that there is a statistically significant difference between these rates after a delayed start time was implemented.

The benefits of later school start times have not gone unnoticed by lawmakers. In 2016, Maryland made enacted the bipartisan Orange Ribbon Bill for Healthy School Hours, the nation’s first incentive program that encourages schools to implement later start times. New Jersey has also passed a bill to research the issue prior to implementing a pilot program, and six other states currently have pending legislation.

On a federal level, U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has repeatedly introduced bills pushing for later school start times, with her most recent proposal calling for the Secretary of Education to conduct a study of the relationship between later start times and adolescent health, well-being, and performance.

While promising, these preliminary efforts are not enough, says McKeever, who urges stakeholders to continue to advocate for later school start times.

While McKeever optimistically writes that “the continuing investigation of the benefits of delayed start times could encourage new support for policy change,” further research would simply be confirming what we already know. Our children need more sleep in order to succeed, McKeever says, and it is time to take these findings and push for real reform.

Of course, moving to a later school start time can be a complicated undertaking. Changing schedules has to involve the input of all school stakeholders, including parents.

“The decision to start high school later requires a shift in mindset,” McKeever writes. “Educators are in a pivotal position to become change agents and advocates for high school students by teaching all stakeholders about adolescent sleep. These changes accomplish what all educators and educational leaders aspire to: student success.”