Can an Hour a Day Keep the F's Away?

Karen Pittman
August 9, 2011

KP blog iconAnyone who has kids knows that 5-year-olds get up earlier than 15-year-olds. Still, many schools ignore that basic reality: Bus schedules often have sleepy teens on the corner as early as 6 a.m. to start classes between 7 and 8 a.m. Meanwhile, the parents of early-rising first graders need to find child care before school, because elementary schools don’t start until 9 a.m.

This never made sense; and now we have growing evidence that such an early start time for high schoolers cramps their learning.

Sleep researchers have long argued that high school schedules don’t match teen sleep patterns. Teens need about nine hours of sleep a night; surveys find that only 10 percent of them get it. It doesn’t work to just tell the kids to go to bed earlier – puberty changes their internal clocks. They aren’t tired at 9 p.m. 

Numerous studies show that later high school start times are often associated with better grades and better attendance.  These studies helped fuel a movement to push back start times, but those efforts have been largely thwarted by the hefty practical challenges of changing schedules – for buses, lunches, teachers, etc. – and by opposition from various quarters. Parents don’t want elementary school students waiting for buses in the dark. High school coaches want as much time as possible for afternoon practices.

A new study, however, shows that it’s in everyone’s best interest to help teens get the Zzz’s they need to get A’s.  Economist Scott Carrell and his colleagues from the University of California/Davis don’t just suggest that sleep helps students succeed; they prove it.

Their study looked at 6,165 freshmen in a high school military academy who, for various reasons, had different start times for classes over several years. This study meets the gold standard for evaluations: Students were randomly assigned to courses and instructors, so that academic achievement differences between the groups can be linked to their different schedules. 

Those differences were considerable. Students who started school earlier not only performed worse in their first period classes, they performed worse all day. 

It’s a thorough study. The researchers tested for just about every possible alternative explanation and eliminated them all. They conclude:

“A later start time of 50 minutes in our sample has the equivalent benefit as raising teacher quality by roughly one standard deviation. Hence, later start times may be a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes for adolescents.” 

The “may” in that last sentence is overly modest. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek calculates that replacing one average teacher with one above average teacher (one standard deviation above the mean) for a class size of 20 “generates marginal gains of over $400,000 of student future earnings.” Carrell’s new research suggests that changing start time policies generates these effects for the entire high school.

Let’s be clear: Getting more sleep will help more high school students be ready to learn, but they will learn only if they have talented, trained teachers.

Yet while we’ve done all sorts of structural tinkering in education that doesn’t directly link to teaching and learning (class size, school size, charters, vouchers, mayoral control of schools), here’s a change for which the evidence looks compelling.

Changing school start times can pay off in measureable ways, and give us more motivation to do the really hard work needed to create vibrant, equitable opportunities for student learning.


Karen Pittman is one of the country’s top leaders on youth development and youth policy, and founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment , SparkAction's managing partner. The Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "action tank" dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work and life . Informed by rigorous research and practical experience, the Forum forges innovative ideas, strategies and partners to strengthen solutions for young people and those who care about them.


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<p>Evidence (research!) tells us what young people need (later start times!) and I&;m encouraged to think about what I can do to counteract the logistical and practical challenges that this shift in scheduling would take.&nbsp; We need to do what&;s right for young people, not what&;s easiest for us as adults!</p>

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