The Push for Later School Start Times Might Improve Students' Performance

From anxiety and depression, to obesity and poor academic performance, early school start times are hurting our students.
Marcia Wendorf

On October 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 328, a new law mandating that high school classes start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., and middle school classes start no earlier than 8:00 a.m.

The new law applies to both public and charter schools, but rural school districts are exempt.

The law goes into effect on July 1, 2021, or whenever the collective bargaining agreement of a school with its employees expires, whichever is later.


The author of the bill, state Senator Anthony Portantino, said that the change would "put our children's health and welfare ahead of institutional bureaucracy resistant to change."

The National Center for Education Statistics examined the start times for 18,360 public high schools in the U.S.

They found that the average start time was 7:59 a.m. with:

  • 9.5% starting before 7:30 a.m.
  • 33% starting between 7:30 a.m. and 7:59 a.m.
  • 43.1% starting between 8:00 a.m. and 8:29 a.m. 
  • 10.6% starting between 8:30 a.m. and 8:59 a.m.
  • 3.8% starting at 9:00 a.m. or later.

At my local high school, school starts at 7:55 a.m., which doesn't sound too bad but, the school bus picks the kids up at 6:26 a.m.

To get to the school bus stop on time, a student has to wake up, wash, dress, and, hopefully, eat breakfast. That means, they've got to rise at 6:00 a.m. or earlier.

Early start times are rooted in history

The American public education system was created to serve what was primarily an agrarian population.

Children were needed to work on the farm, so early school start times ensured that students were back home in the early afternoon and available to work.

Teenagers working on farms
Teenagers working on farms. Source: DragonImages/iStock

Fast forward almost 250 years, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites early school start times as causing a chronic lack of sleep in students.

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This, in turn, leads to overeating, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, using drugs, and poor academic performance. Lack of sleep also leads to higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness, drowsy driving accidents, and an increase in type 2 diabetes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated 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."

Teenagers are naturally night owls

According to the AAP, adolescents experience a sleep-wake "phase delay" of up to 2 hours due to delayed timing of nocturnal melatonin secretion and an altered "sleep drive."

Both factors lead to adolescents staying up later.

Teenagers stay up later
Teenagers stay up later Source: ViktorCap/iStock

Typically, teenagers find it difficult to go to sleep before 11:00 p.m., and since the optimal amount of sleep for teenagers is between 8.5 and 9.5 hours, that means that they should wake at 8:00 a.m. or later.

To counter their chronic sleepiness, students resort to using stimulants, such as caffeine, energy drinks, and prescription medications.

While parents are encouraged to set bedtimes for their teenagers and to remove computers, cellphones, and video games from their children's bedrooms, those aren't always realistic options.

So, what can parents do?

The APA states that the number one solution to the problem of chronic sleep deprivation in adolescents is to change early school start times. 

To address this problem, parents can contact their local school district and raise the issue of later school start times.

Even if you aren't the parent of a student, you're likely to be affected by this issue.

A community in Lexington, Kentucky, reduced the accident rate of its teenage drivers by 16.5% just by pushing back their school start time by one hour.

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