In 2012 I wrote a commentary in Education Week (Push Back High School Start Times) arguing that ensuring safe, healthy school start times requires recognizing sleep and school hours as public health issues. Even back then the science was clear: requiring adolescents to be in class too early in the morning is unhealthy, unsafe, and counterproductive. The problem districts had ensuring healthy bell times wasn’t the science: it was the politics.
Since then, there has been increasing recognition both about the strength of the science and the problems of leaving public health matters in the hands of individual school districts, culminating in California’s new “start school later” law. This law, which requires most state middle and high schools to adopt minimum opening times (8 a.m. for middle schools, 8:30 a.m. for high schools), is based on an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement recommending that middle and high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow growing brains and bodies an opportunity to get enough sleep at the times they most need it.
Many other health and education organizations—including the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Society for Behavioral Medicine, National PTA, and National Education Association—have subsequently issued or endorsed the same recommendation.
As Settled As Science Gets
Despite some media claims to the contrary, the science grounding this law is as settled as science gets. A large, broad, and consistent body of evidence shows that most adolescents cannot get healthy sleep if they are forced to be in school too early in the morning—and that returning to developmentally appropriate bell times is a proven countermeasure to adolescent sleep deficiency.
California’s Governor Newsom has provided a wise and courageous solution to this decades-long impasse by setting minimum standards for how early schools can start classes, finally stopping the process of passing the buck for a practice causing serious and unnecessary harm.
Organizations such as the AAP and AMA do not issue policy statements lightly, and their recommendations are a testament to the strength of this research. In fact, in response to legislative analysis casting doubt on the strength of the science, over 120 research, health, and public policy experts immediately signed a consensus letter confirming that the “volume, breadth, consistency and strength of the peer-reviewed scientific research supporting this legislation are unequivocal, and they exceed the high standards for public health and education policy.”
Last October a Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission Report reached similar conclusions, stating that their recommendation for secondary schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later “is also that of medical organizations and supported by scientific evidence.”
The report adds that evidence from districts in Pennsylvania and around the nation that have successfully delayed bell times obviates the need for a pilot proof-of-concept program. In addition, it provides specific, evidence-based guidance to help communities use the opportunity provided by developmentally appropriate bell times most effectively.
These change-management practices include providing sleep education in school health curricula, raising awareness about the benefits of later start times, and engaging authentically with community stakeholders.
Costs of Inertia
Much of the media coverage of California’s new law highlights speculation about ways in which changing bell times might be “disruptive” to districts and communities. Such speculation misses the point that such disruption—even if and when it occurs—is often overestimated, temporary at worst, and ultimately minor compared to the benefits received.
Speculations about what “might” happen if bell times change also overlook the very real costs of not changing.
Yes, all change comes with challenges and even costs, but the clear lesson from the many communities that have delayed bell times successfully is that when there’s political will to change, stakeholders can and do collaborate iteratively to find creative solutions to both perceived and real logistical challenges. When school leaders embrace change and work with community stakeholders to develop a culture of healthy sleep, the benefits from later school start times are even greater.
Speculations about what “might” happen if bell times change also overlook the very real costs of not changing. Human nature makes us all unconsciously value the way we do things now over the value of change (“status quo bias”). It also makes us discount or overlook existing problems that come from inaction compared to problems that might come from taking action (“omission bias”). Thus, when we talk about later start times possibly “not working” we forget what’s not working right now.
Our tendency to overestimate costs of change while overlooking the costs of not changing helps explain why most districts have struggled to turn established science into school policy. We forget the many children and families whose mental and physical health, safety, and school performance are suffering because we force growing children to deprive themselves of sleep to attend class. We forget the challenges to working families with current school hours, which often differ drastically from elementary to middle to high school—and that often change as children move through the school system.
School start times were set, and continue to be set, for all kinds of reasons, but convenience of families and even school employees was never one of them.
We also forget that work and school hours are not coordinated, and that for every family that likes current hours is another struggling with them. We forget that school start times were set, and continue to be set, for all kinds of reasons, but convenience of families and even school employees was never one of them.
Empowering School Districts
California’s Governor Newsom has provided a wise and courageous solution to this decades-long impasse by setting minimum standards for how early schools can start classes, finally stopping the process of passing the buck for a practice causing serious and unnecessary harm. This groundbreaking law also changes the landscape for communities across the nation grappling with similar challenges by establishing the moral imperative of states to step in when local communities cannot protect children’s safety, health, and basic rights.
By removing the greatest roadblock to change—the fear of community pushback and political repercussions of that pushback—California’s new law empowers local districts to prioritize student health and safety when they set schedules. The hope now is that instead of speculating about what might go wrong, districts use the many experience-based resources available to them to take advantage of this opportunity to address a profound and unnecessary harm.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published as a blog on Start School Later’s website.