If you go to high school in the US, you might remember early morning extracurricular lessons, sleepovers during your first algebra period, or late-night study sessions (unlike other wide-awake “study sessions” our parents told us we were taking). As an adult, you might wonder if there’s a better time to explore Shakespeare than at 8 a.m., or extend Taylor’s series right after you’ve collapsed on your seat, half-asleep than on a sunrise bus ride.
As it turns out, early American high school start times are built on a shaky scientific foundation, as journalist and parent Lisa Lewis explains in her new book, sleep deprived teen. She details why US high schools tend to start early, the science behind why it’s bad for kids, and how later school start times can benefit not just teens, but, well…everyone. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a primer on advocating for change in your community.
Bus wheels spin and spin
Our early beginnings are a kind of historical coincidence. In the first half of the 20th century, schools tended to be small and local – most students could walk. Lewis points out that in 1950, there were still 60,000 one-room schools across the country. By 1960, that number had dwindled to about 20,000.
According to Lewis, this trend accelerated as authorities in the United States feared that education – especially in science and mathematics – was lagging behind its archenemy, the Soviet Union. Describes how a 1959 report written by James Bryant Conant, a chemist and retired Harvard president, recommended that high schools have Class sizes graduated At least 100 – a far cry from the small local schools. The process of integrating schools, which had already begun, accelerated. Neighborhood schools continued to close. And the yellow school bus got stuck on a path toward its current iconic status.
To reduce costs associated with buses, Lewis describes the number of districts whose school start times staggered so that they could use the same buses to transport elementary, middle, and high school students. At the time, there was a societal consensus that teens needed less sleep than juniors, so high schools got earlier sleep periods.
And science says…
In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists had to delve into teenage sleep. But that began to change in the 1970s, beginning with the Stanford summer slumber camp experiment led by then-doctoral student Mary Carskadon, now professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Lewis takes readers through the highlights of the multi-year study, in which scientists tracked sleep patterns and metrics ranging from monitoring brain waves to cognitive tests in the same children over 10, from 1976 to 1985.
The surprising results came from this first look at teenage sleep. For example, teens need the same or even more sleep than younger children. On average, all children in the study, regardless of age, slept 9.25 hours per night. Subsequent studies have shown that the ideal amount of sleep for adolescents is between 8 and 10 hours per night. However, Lewis reports that by 2019, only 22 percent of high school students reported regularly getting at least eight hours of sleep, according to the CDC.
The other major finding from the Stanford Summer Sleep Camp experience was that older children got energy boosts later in the day. Subsequent studies have shown that when children reach puberty, their brains delay the release of melatonin – the hormone that makes us sleepy. For teens, melatonin rises late at night and drops later in the morning, altering their circadian rhythms. High school students’ tendency to stay up and sleep away in the morning isn’t necessarily laziness or defiance—it’s biological.
Yet here we are, decades later, with average school start times in 2017 starting at 8 a.m. and 40 percent of schools starting even earlier. That’s a dramatic change from a century ago when high schools in the western United States started at 9 a.m., Lewis points out.
Why haven’t schools adapted to this flow of new information? Well, some schools have it. Lewis lists numerous examples throughout the book, showing which schools have reaped a lot of positive influence, even in the age of smartphones and social media.
Lewis describes one study, published in 2018, in which students slept an extra 34 minutes each school night when the Seattle area shifted the start time to 8:45 a.m. It might not sound like much, but many students and families gave positive feedback, as they did. teachers, and one described the morning vibe as “optimistic” – a trait many of us might find misunderstood in the prime.