Editorial: Lack of sleep causing academic downfalls

Teens have a tendency to stay up

late and wake up late. The reason? It’s biological. The beginning of

puberty marks the start

of a “phase shift,” with adolescents going to bed later and rising

later than younger children, according to a team of researchers

led by Brown University’s Mary Carskadon. Teens are often unable

to fall asleep at earlier times like they used to, so they

sleep in later to compensate.

It becomes a problem when students have to get up at 6:30 a.m. to catch a bus to school, causing them to miss out on needed

sleep.

For years now, health professionals

have been advising school leaders to start the school day later for

teen students, but

not many of the nation’s schools have taken their advice. Nearly

85 percent of public junior and senior high schools in the

U.S. begin morning classes before 8:30 a.m., with more than 40

percent starting during the 7 o’clock hour, according to

schoolstarttime.org.

Does it really matter? According to the same Web site, students at later-starting schools, those that begin “roughly” at 9

a.m., get more sleep, perform better academically, are involved in fewer vehicle accidents, report greater motivation and

less depression, are physically ill less often, and are less likely to be late for school or miss days.

One 2012 study found that delaying the start of school by an hour — from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. — increased middle school

students’ standardized test scores in math and reading by 2 to 3 percentile points.

The latest champion of the start-school-later cause is Education Secretary Arne Duncan. He said last week that a later start

to the school day could help teenagers get the most from their classroom time and local districts should consider delaying

the first bell.

“Rested students are ready students. There’s lots of research and common sense that lots of teens struggle to get up ... to

get on the bus,” said Duncan, the former chief of Chicago Public Schools.

Yet if so many experts agree it would be better for teens to start classes later, why isn’t much being done?

One issue is school buses. School

districts, often strapped for cash, may not have enough buses to take

all the kids to school

at the same time. High school students generally are the ones to

have earlier morning bus times, with elementary school students

being picked up later.

There are other issues to consider before making a change. How would later start times affect teachers, students’ after-school

activities and parents who bring their children to school and then drive to their jobs?

Just because there are obstacles doesn’t mean the topic should be tabled. “So often, we design school systems that work for

adults and not for kids,” Duncan told NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.”

Exposing students to the educational experience when they are most likely to absorb it and benefit from is the right thing

to do for them. If a way can be found to implement later start times, let’s do it.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.