Despite the wealth of research on sleep deprivation and its effects on growing adolescents, the school day begins before 8 a.m. and ends before 3 p.m. at the majority of high schools in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, where I have worked for the past 48 years. I suspect this is the norm in most secondary schools in the country.
I have recently completed a one-year contract serving as the interim superintendent in Parsippany, where the start time at the high school is 7:40 a.m. and between 8:50 and 8:55 a.m. at the elementary schools. I have pointed out the obvious: young children go to bed much earlier than adolescents and, as most parents know, awake earlier. Nevertheless, despite the impact on more than 2,000 adolescents housed in two high schools, the schedule remains firmly in place along with excessive tardiness in the first period classes.
Added to the early start is the length of the bus ride, which can vary from less than 20 minutes to one hour, depending on a student’s proximity to the school. The problem is more apparent in suburban and rural school districts serving large townships and counties. Researchers have found that sleep and learning are inextricably linked, and suggest that adolescents sleep 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours a day.
The Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders, located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, conducted a study that found that without adequate sleep, adolescents process information differently, which in turn has a negative effect on school performance. The longitudinal study, titled “To Study or to Sleep? The Academic Costs of Extra Studying at the Expense of Sleep” and published in Child Development(August 20, 2012), found that when adolescent students sleep less in order to study more, they have trouble comprehending class material and struggle with assignments and tests on the following day.
A March 10, 2012 column in The Washington Post titled “Sleep Deprivation and Teens: Walking Zombies,” noted troubling findings regarding teens and sleep deprivation.
The National Sleep Foundation has determined that American teenagers require about 9 ¼ hours of sleep a night, while a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that two-thirds of high school students sleep for no more than seven hours each night. This lack of sleep not only causes students to perform poorly throughout the school day but also potentially harms physical growth and brain development by lowering the level of human growth hormone their bodies produce.
Further, a 2010 study published in the journal Sleep found that the teens who stay up past midnight are 24 percent more likely to experience depression. They also call attention to the findings of a study in the Journal of Pediatrics, which concluded that energy drinks containing high concentrations of caffeine, which many teens consume to stay awake, could harm adolescents’ neurological and cardiovascular systems.
If principals and superintendents would take the time to review the literature and the importance of sufficient sleep for adolescents, they would find substantial support and reasons to change to later school starting and ending times.
Resistance In Nassau County, New York, I served as superintendent of the Lawrence Public Schools for eight years. Prior to that appointment, I served as a public school superintendent in New Jersey for 11 years and in Connecticut for seven. Early start times for high schools were the norm in each district.
I tried to implement a later start time at Lawrence High School but encountered the traditional roadblocks. However, the school day at one high school in Nassau County, Jericho, begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m. In this case, the middle school and high school are located on the same campus, which may have aided the district in implementing this change.
Based on my experience in the tri-state area, the common practice, with few exceptions, is to start the high school day well before 8 a.m. If we viewed the students as workers in a learning organization, as proposed by educational guru Phil Schlecty, then why not schedule their day to parallel the conventional workday (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) found in most places of business?
Why schools lack the will to address the issue of sleep deprivation is truly puzzling. It may well be that those of us in leadership positions have failed to keep our parents and boards of education informed as to the negative consequences of too little sleep, along with a lack of persistence when we encounter the ever-present organizational resistance to change.
Resistance comes from many quarters. One loud voice opposing change frequently comes from a school’s athletic department – a department that carries much political clout in most school communities. Generally, the coaches resist any change, fearing that a late school dismissal time will wreak havoc with scheduling of games and contests, especially “away games” that require long bus rides.
Resistance also comes from working parents (teachers included) who are unwilling to adjust their personal schedules as well as from students who have after-school jobs.
Reactions from the Field
In light of the compelling research on sleep deprivation and its negative effects on adolescents’ performance, the small sampling of responses I received from practicing administrators was most disappointing. I had emailed draft manuscripts to 10 principals and 12 superintendents located in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, soliciting their reactions to the research cited.
Few bothered to respond. Several simply complimented my work and said they had nothing to add. Of the principals of the two districts cited, one never responded, and the other had nothing to add and did not mention changing the 7:25 a.m. start time at his high school.
Several superintendents did challenge the assumption that the later start time was no guarantee that adolescents would take advantage and sleep longer. One superintendent suggested that parents could resolve the issue by better supervising their children. None found the argument compelling enough to challenge the status quo, and one said it was not worth the loss of political capital. With such resistance, and so little political will on the part of educational leaders, one can see why early start and dismissal times will remain firmly in place.
In this age of school reforms and its demand for accountability and improved student performance, why not begin by simply changing school start and end times?