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New study shows later school start times could lead to a $9 billion economic gain

New study shows later school start times could lead to a $9 billion economic gain
Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

In Chicago and around the nation, kids are off to their first day of school today. The time at which school starts for middle and high schoolers is a big issue. I've talked about them here on the blog and on the Facebook page for years now, and I've learned that people feel really strongly about them.

Here's a quick recap:

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics  issued a policy statement saying that “the average adolescent in the United States is chronically sleep deprived and pathologically sleepy” and that "a substantial body of research has now demonstrated that delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement."

In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended  that later school start times be treated as a public health issue. The CDC noted that "[a]mong the possible public health interventions for increasing sufficient sleep among adolescents, delaying school start times has the potential for the greatest population impact by changing the environmental context for students in entire school districts."

In 2016, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a policy statement encouraging middle schools and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.  It notes that less than a third of American teenagers reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, and that 8.5-9.5 hours is recommended for optimal health. The statement also points out that "[s]tudies have also shown that puberty is accompanied by a biological delay or shift in circadian rhythm, contributing to later bedtimes and wake times among teens."

"While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences," said AMA Board Member William E. Kobler, M.D. in a press release from the AMA.

In teens, the lack of sleep is associated with poor physical and mental health, behavior issues and suicidal thoughts, as well as attention and concentration problems.

Puberty impacts kids in a number of ways, and that includes when they can sleep. Teen biology and circadian rhythm mean that simply saying “good to bed earlier” will not work.  Remember sleeping in late when you were a teen? Turns out you weren’t lazy, it was biology. The AAP says that teens have “natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m.”

Some school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, have followed the recommendations by the nation's top medical providers and pushed back the start times for high school students.

Today, though, the majority of school districts around the country still start far earlier than the recommended time.

Districts in California may not have much of a choice in the future. A bill requiring a minimum 8:30 a.m. start time for the state’s public middle and high schools beginning in 2020 passed the state Senate. The state Assembly will take it up in the coming weeks.

And proponents of that measure and of efforts to start school later around the nation have new support.

Last week, the RAND Corporation released a study finding that pushing start times back would, in just two years, generate "an economic gain of $8.6 billion to the U.S. economy, which would already outweigh the costs per student from delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m." 

RAND describes the possible impact as "unprecedented" in a news release and it's easy to see why. At the risk of sounding like Austin Powers, that's almost Nine. Billion. Dollars.

The report says the economic gains would come from higher academic and professional performance of students as well as from reduced car crash rates among adolescents. 

Communities where schools have started later have seen those gains first hand. The Boston Globe reports that tardiness declined by 35% and the number of Ds and Fs fell by half when Nauset Regional High School changed its start time to 8:35 a.m. When Jackson Hole High School in Wyoming shifted its start time to 8:55 a.m., the number of car crashes involving drivers ages 16-18 dropped by 70 percent, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Those benefits offset the costs of moving school start times back, most of which stem from transportation, including rescheduling bus routes. That's been one of the big impediments in my daughter's school district.

In the article "Why Does High School Still Start So Early?" on Slate, Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corp. said that "school start times are the only policy-level issue that has been identified as directly contributing to the problem. Certainly addressing individual factors such as technology use and blue light is important, but we know from a significant amount of research that solely addressing major public health issues via individual-level interventions is not sufficient to solve the crisis.”

Troxel says in the press release that shifting times back is a "win-win, both in terms of benefiting the public health of adolescents and doing so in a cost-effective manner.”

I am really hoping that this latest research will help make it easier for our educational policy officials to follow the recommendations of what's best for our children's health and mean later school start times for teens around the country.

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