What School Start Times Say About the Stifling Strictures of Public Education


Flickr User Base Camp Baker

As a lifelong late-sleeper who went to a high school with a brutal 7 a.m. start time, I'm thrilled to see The New York Times cover new research indicating that students at high schools with later start times performed better on measures such as mental health, auto accident rates, attendance, and sometime grades and test scores as well. I napped through first and second period fairly consistently during my high school days, even in classes that I liked, and even when my teachers allowed me to tote my technically off-limits mega-thermos of coffee into the classroom in hopes that it would keep me awake. Even when I wasn't passed out on my desk, I still didn't learn much. I was basically zombified until third period or so—shuffling and groaning from class to class, but not really alive and engaged.

And while supporters of early start times frequently argue that they're better for kids who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, because they make more room in the afternoon, for me the opposite was true. I quit competitive swimming once I reached high school because practices started at something like 5 a.m., and nighttime band practices kept me out later during the weekday anyway. Waking up in time to swim would have been incredibly difficult just by itself. Trying to do it while staying up for band—and the inevitable homework that had to be completed after practice—would have been impossible.

Sure, some of this was basic teenage laziness, but I'm not the only teenager to have had trouble with early morning school start times. Overall, the research is pretty clear that teenagers tend to have later sleep cycles, and that early class start times impact performance at school and elsewhere. That's why places like the Brookings Institution are recommending later start times, and why the Times report is built around the story of a successful student push to get a school board in Missouri to ditch plans to make an early start time even earlier. As the Times notes, this is a movement decades in the making; the research has been pointing in this direction for a while.

But here's the thing: Later high school start times may be better on average, but not every teenage student is semi-comatose until 9 a.m. I knew kids who liked going to bed and getting up early, and others who managed to earn great grades, play sports, maintain active social lives, and otherwise perform just fine on five hours of sleep. And while it wasn't true for me, the benefits for many after-school activities are real—especially for teenagers who work part-time jobs. Indeed, that was one way that my school's hellishly early start time actually helped me: Throughout my senior year, I worked a few days a week at a local grocery store. The early start time meant school was out before 2 p.m., so I was able to stop at home, change clothes, and grab a snack before starting an afternoon shift.

All of which is to say that what works for some students doesn't always work for others. The real problem then isn't early start times so much as it is the centralized rigidity of the public school system.

For many kids (and their parents) there's little or no choice about what high school to go to, and what time to be there. You go to the school you're assigned to, and that's it. Private options offer some flexibility, in some cases. But even moderately priced private schools are expensive. And in many smaller and medium-sized towns, the competition is weak at best.

Sure, it's nice to see that some school districts are taking note of the evidence in favor of later start times for high schools. But it would be even nicer to imagine a world in which the evidence didn't take 20 years to filter into school systems' decision-making processes, in which small bands of school-board bureaucrats weren't making one-size-fits-all decisions for thousands of students, and in which teenagers and their families had a variety of meaningful options available—options that might include, among other things, variable start times, and perhaps even school days that weren't constructed on the traditional seven-hours-starting-in-the-morning schedule at all. In other words, it would be nice if there were choice and competition in public education, and if innovations and adjustments like later start times weren't news.