To start off the school year in AP Psychology, I share with students four lessons from Psychology that can make them a better student. Number one, we talk about metacognition. Two, deep vs. shallow processing. Three, spaced/distributed vs. massed practice. And, point number four is simple: Get enough sleep! Students laugh at this point as if it is too simple to be of value and also because for many of them the idea of sleeping for eight hours or more is just a joke.
If you were hungry, it would be inhuman to keep you from food. If you're thirsty, your body is telling you it's time for water. When you need to go to the bathroom, well, you get where I'm going. These are all physical needs that must be met, and we've recognized for a long time that in school, you better make sure these needs are attended to if there is any hope of getting to the job of educating.
Last night, a fellow high school Psych teacher tweeted out a link to a CDC study headlined "Most US Middle and High Schools Start the Day Too Early." Occasionally, I'll have a student suggest that since teenagers tend to sleep later, they should go to school later, but in my district, they're in for a shock when they learn that we've known that for a while and adjusted the schedule accordingly.
When I went to high school, our day started at 8:20am. Not too bad, but still ten minutes earlier than the time recommended by the CDC. For as long as I can remember teaching in Albemarle County, Virginia, we've started school no earlier than 8:50am. Another Psych teacher twitter friend thought I was joking and shared that his school day begins at 7:15 in the morning.
Adequate sleep is not an option. Sleep deprivation has negative short and long term effects. I don't think that I've been capable of going to bed earlier than 10pm since I was about fourteen years old. If that is a reasonable bed time, then a teen would need to sleep until at least 6:30am to get eight and a half hours of sleep, and 7:30am to get nine and a half. I can't imagine the average teenager able to go to sleep before then even with close parental supervision. If it takes an hour to get showered, dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and travel to school, that gets us to the recommended time from the CDC.
I asked in our twitter exchange what could possibly be the rationale for such early start times for high school students. The only real argument seems to be participation in sports and other extra-curriculars. If that's it, then why can't middle schools get it right on start times? But, these obstacles clearly aren't impossible to overcome. From time to time, early dismissals for athletes competing away can be a problem, but an average of once a week in season doesn't compare to the cumulative effect of sleep loss over an entire year.
This is still assuming that most teenagers are going to bed before 11pm.
So why do so many districts insist on such early start times for middle and high school? The phrase "what's best for the kids" seems to only apply when it's directed to a classroom policy of a teacher. For all of the district administrators and decision-makers having kids start class before 8:00 in the morning, is that really what's best for the kids?