If you’ve attended high school in the US, you remember early morning extracurriculars, sleeping through first period algebra, or sleepy late night study sessions (as opposed to the more active “study sessions” we told our parents we were in). As an adult, you might think there’s a better time to explore Shakespeare than 8 a.m., or after you’ve plopped down on the Taylor series, half-asleep from your sunrise bus ride.
Apparently, as journalist and parent Lisa Lewis puts it in her new book, America’s high school elementary schools start on a shaky scientific foundation. The sleepless teenager. She details why high schools in the United States start early, the science behind why it’s bad for kids, and how later school start times benefit not only young people, but, well…everyone. Perhaps most importantly, she will provide a primary guide to advocating for change in your community.
The wheels on the bus go round and round
Our early days are a bit of a historical disaster. In the first half of the 20th century, schools were small and local – most students could walk. Lewis He pointed out that in 1950 there were still 60,000 one-room schools in the country. By 1960, this number had dropped to about 20,000.
According to Lewis, that trend has worsened because US officials fear that education, particularly science and math, is lagging behind its former nemesis, the Soviet Union. She describes how a 1959 report by James Bryant Conant, a chemist and retired Harvard University president, encouraged high schools. Graduation class sizes At least 100 – a far cry from the smaller local schools. School consolidation, which had already begun, was accelerated. Neighborhood schools continue to be closed. And the yellow school bus is locked to the direction of the current scene.
To reduce costs associated with busing, Lewis noted how many districts have staggered school start times so they can use the same buses to transport elementary, middle and high school students. At the time, it was a societal consensus that teenagers needed less sleep than young adults, so high schools got the top spots.
And science says…
In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists could not yet penetrate the sleep of teenagers. But that began to change in the 1970s with the Stanford Summer Sleep Camp Experiment led by then-doctoral student Mary Carskadon, now a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. Lewis takes readers through the highlights of a multi-year study in which scientists tracked sleep patterns and cognitive tests in children over 10 years from 1976 to 1985.
Looking at the sleep of teenagers for the first time, surprising results were found. For example, teenagers need the same or more sleep than younger children. On average, all children in the study, regardless of age, slept 9.25 hours each night. A series of studies show that the ideal amount of sleep for young people is between 8 and 10 hours a night. According to Lewis, In 2019, 22 percent of high school students regularly got at least eight hours of shut-eye, according to the CDC.
Another key finding from the Stanford Summer Sleep Camp experiment was that older children had bursts of energy during the day. Subsequent studies have shown that as children reach puberty, their brains slow down the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. For young people, melatonin rises at night and falls later in the morning, changing their circadian rhythms. High schoolers’ tendency to stay up late and sleep in the mornings isn’t necessarily laziness or reluctance—it’s biological.
Yet here we are, decades later, with average school start times in 2017 starting at 8 am and 40 percent of schools starting earlier. That’s a dramatic change from a century ago, when high schools in the United States started at 9 a.m., Lewis says.
Why haven’t schools adapted to this new flow of information? Well, some schools have. Lewis lays out several examples in the book, showing many schools that are doing well even in the age of smartphones and social media.
Lewis cited a study published in 2018 that found students slept an extra 34 minutes each school night when their Seattle district changed their start time to 8:45 a.m. That may not seem like much, but many students and families responded positively. When the teachers described the morning atmosphere as “exciting”, this adjective many of us can relate to for the first time.