Why Wake Teens Early?

Teens learn better if allowed to sleep longer:

This paper uses data on all middle school students in Wake County, NC from 1999-2006 to study the impact of start times on academic performance. … The differences in start time across schools is generated by bus scheduling concerns, while the differences within schools are driven by population growth. … I find that a one hour later start time increases standardized test scores on both math and reading test by three percentile points. Since start times may be correlated with other determinants of test scores, I also estimate the effect using only variation in start times within schools over time and find a two percentile point improvement. The effect of start times on academic performance is robust to different specifications and sources of variation. The magnitude of the effect is similar to the difference in test scores for one additional year of parental education.

The impact of later start times on test scores is persistent. Conditional on a high school fixed effect, a one hour later start time in grade eight is associated with an increase in test scores in grade ten similar in magnitude to the increase in grade eight. … The impact of start times is greatest in grade eight (who are more likely to have begun puberty than those in the sixth or seventh grade). … Students who begin school later have fewer absences and spend more time on homework each week. … Over the seven years examined in this paper, [this school district] grew from 20,530 student enrolled in twenty-two middle schools … to 27,686 students enrolled in twenty-eight middle schools. (more)

Do you predict that once news of this study spreads, schools will all delay their start times?  Me neither.

So why do we insist on getting teens up early, if that hinders learning? For the same reason we test and rank students so often, even though that also hinders learning. School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.

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  • JLA

    No, the reason we insist on teens getting up so early for school is because teens can take are of themselves after school when their parents are still at work.

    The school system – high school, middle school, elementary school – is organized so as to minimize the amount of time little kids will be “parent-less” over the course of the day.

    • Rilian

      What on earth are you talking about? Teens can take care of themselves after school… so therefore school has to finish at 2:45? Why can’t it finish at 4:00? (My 8th grade school was 9:00-4:00.) This comment of yours doesn’t point to any downside of sleeping till 8:00, not starting school till 9:00, not finishing school till 4:00. If their parents are at work until 5:00, then they have an hour to ninety minutes to “take care of themselves”. Seriously, what is your point?

      Having school day go from 7:45 to 2:45 doesn’t minimize the time the kids are without their parents. If you’re assuming the parents are at work from 8:00 to 5:00, then school could go as late at 5:00 (starting at 10:00) and still not take away any time that the kids could have had with their parents.

      WHAT was your point?

      • High school, middle school, and elementary school schedules are staggered by an hour or two to allow the same bus drivers to serve all three. Since elementary schools students cannot be left home alone, their schedule must line up with typical work schedules, 9-5. This means high schools have to run 7-3 or 11-7. The latter typically interferes with home life, especially family dinner, so 7-3 it is.

      • Rilian

        Jess Riedel: I’ve never attended a school that met for 8 hours. They’ve all been 7 hours. And I’ve only ever been to one school that started at 9:00, and that was a middle school. One school I went to for fourth grade started at 8:30. Other than that, every school I’ve gone to started at 7:45 and ended at 2:45, even in Kindergarten. So, what on earth are you talking about?

  • Sandeep

    I would (seriously) suggest banning social sciences and some of the useless American school math activity (making icosahedrons using marshmallows, adding fractions by cutting paper disks into sectors etc.) and freeing up time for the children. The children, if they wish, can privately go for learning useless subjects like those.

    • G


      Rank these 10 subjects in order of overall learning importance:

      I’ve chosen 2 subjects from Science, Social Studies, English, Foreign Language, and Math.

      Chemistry, Physics, US History, Economics/Personal Finance, American Literature, Writing, Foreign Language I, Foreign Language II, Algebra, and Geometry.

      FYI. I’m especially excited to hear why Physics is more important for high school students to know and understand than Personal Economics.

  • Even worse in my area they only give the SAT at 8:00am! What do they not want area students to score optimally. (I know because I wanted my son to take the test latter as it might add a few points to his score.)

  • “School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.”

    When I was in school I realized that it wasn’t about education – and found that truth to be utterly demoralizing. I wonder how many bright, or even just attentive, children we lose in the school system because they realize this truth on some level.

    The American school system must be destroyed.

    • Evan

      isnt it kind of important to society that we teach industrial workplace norms? isnt that actually far more important to the vast majority of people than derivatives, columbus, bach, etc?

      • Sister Y

        Depends on your conception of the purpose of human life. If the industrial workplace is its ultimate goal, then yes.

  • I think the most important reason why this will not be implemented is inertia. People simply don’t want to change their behavior.

  • nikki_olson

    Traffic is another consideration. Transportation systems are designed around school schedules, and those schedules work best for working parents, too, inhibiting the chances of just one school starting later etc. They would all have to switch.

  • Because being able to wake up early is viewed as a moral issue, and that makes change harder.

    Anyone care to take a crack at how normal variations get split into evidence of virtue or the lack of virtue?

  • dave

    Because people are expected to get the kids to school before they go to work, and then they are the schools problem until they get home.

  • Danny

    “School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.”

    What liberal, Utopian drivel. With that thinking, we would graduate touchy, emotional young adults that think they are all number one but can’t read, write or have any technical skills. It is this type of progressive thinking that has destroyed American education. Give me German type educational thinking any day.

    • John

      When Robin says “X is not about Y, it’s about Z,” he is not making any normative statements about what X should be about.

      “Clothes aren’t about comfort” doesn’t mean that Robin only wears Snuggies.


    • Anonymous


    • Rilian

      That’s what it IS, not what it should be. It IS about the socializing.

  • dWj

    The first and last comments seem to be approximately this, but I would say that the schools also have as a primary purpose the babysitting of children, and the earlier schedule is more convenient for the adults — both parents and teachers.

  • RJB

    For several years, schools have been exploring later start times and trying to make them work. We made the change here in Ithaca. Here (pdf) is a document laying out the case for later start times similar to the research Robin provided. But change is hard, though. Here is a page that shows the many factors that had to be taken into account. If it hadn’t also have saved money, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened.

    I don’t believe that “school is not about learning” provides much insight into the issue. More important factors would seem to be “school is really expensive,” “people’s schedules are really complicated,” “research results are not always reliable indicators of the effects that will be observed when new policies are implemented, especially when complexities could lead to unintended consequences”…and finally, “parents and administrators have a lot on their plates; they may be focusing on other changes they feel are more pressing.”

    • I think RJB is right here, and it’s a good opportunity to clarify JLA’s point.

      High school, middle school, and elementary school schedules are staggered by an hour or two to allow the same bus drivers to serve all three. Since elementary schools students cannot be left home alone, their schedule must line up with typical work schedules, 9-5. This means high schools have to run 7-3 or 11-7. The latter typically interferes with home life, especially family dinner, so 7-3 it is.

      There are some other options, e.g. move elementary schedules around and force parents to pay for more child care, run high school 11-7 and move all sports/extracurricular to before class, pay for more bus drivers so everyone goes to school while parents work, etc. But they all cost money.

      (As RJB describes, there are other logistical concerns.)

      I have no doubt that school’s partial purpose as a conditioner to industrial workplace norms plays a role. In fact, most parents will readily admit that teaching youth to wake up reliably at unpleasant times is a good goal.

      But the benefits to parents of the status quo (less money spent on school taxes and childcare) are more concrete than the harms (statistically lower scores, which are mostly hidden by the other large influences on scores). I think the natural human bias for choosing concrete benefits over hazy harms is a bigger factor here than the degree to which the true purpose of schools differs from the folk explanation.

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  • School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.

    I’m pretty much in agreement with this and the general attitude of critique towards school as an institution. But this either/or attitude bugs me.

    School is a social institution and like any such institution it owes its structure to the intersection of a bunch of different goals and factors: the desire to educate, to inculcate social norms, to keep kids off the street, economic limits, tradition, and (of course) the desire to perpetuate itself. That’s just how things work.

    I really don’t see how you can have any understanding of these sorts of phenomenon if you start with the attitude that they exist just for one purpose and if they serve other ones, that’s hypocrisy. I’m guessing you don’t have any problem with the fact that Microsoft, eg, exists both to make software and to make money and for many other less obvious purposes.

    It also bugs me (just a tiny bit) that you make these pronouncements as if this is some startlingly new idea, without reference to the many other thinkers who have made similar criticisms — Ivan Illich, Seymour Papert, and John Taylor Gatto to name just the ones off the top of my head. There are whole movements devoted to deschooling.

  • “School isn’t about learning the content of classes – its more about socializing humans to accept industrial workplace norms and practices.”

    I think that it is about testing/grading. It aids us in determinig who will be a good employee/associate.

  • Shandy

    I am sending this to all my teachers : ) It seems pretty clear to me that very few of my teachers actually care what me or other pupils do, all longs as they don’t get bothered by the consequences.

    • This is probably why so much bullying goes on as well as blaming the victims of bullying — teachers don’t really care who beats the shit out of who as long as they don’t have to deal with it.

      Well played America, well played.

  • tom

    1. The paper ignores a huge Wake County issue: forced busing of students to create ‘economic diversity’. Last year when the county ended a policy started in 2000 to move rich kids and poor kids around. So the policy was in effect from 2000-2010 and the study covers 1999-2006. I checked to see what the paper said about this, and it said nothing beyond once mentioning that diversity was one of the factors in busing (“Nodes are matched to schools based on facility utilization, distance and diversity.”) I don’t know how the diversity busing could have affected the results but I think any author should mention that. In the case of magnet-related busing, the author excluded all magnet students because they had more busing time. Why not the same for the diversity groups?

    2. The diversity group would have been a great set of data, especially if the rich kids and poor kids were randomly chosen and if all of them ended up with earlier start times as a result of the busing. (There’s no breakdown of that data in the tables.) The main stated objection to forced busing was long bus rides! So the effect of busing on the diversity students was a big public question. How could the author ignore it?

    3. The NYT article on the subject mentions other confounding factors in Wake County:

    Wake’s diversity requirement is hardly its only controversial education policy. The county, which is affluent and Democratic compared with the rest of the state, has experimented with several unusual tactics in recent years.

    They included a “year round” calendar system to maximize classroom space by scheduling different school days for different groups of students, replacing traditional summer vacations with shorter, more frequent breaks. There was also a policy of dismissing students an hour early on Wednesdays to allow teacher planning meetings, which critics dubbed “Wacky Wednesdays” and said forced families to hire babysitters.

    The author should have dealt with these too.

    4. In Montgomery County MD, right across from where Robin lives, we have had long debates over school start times and research, which I recall being less clear-cut than Robin seems to assume. It really is hard to change without spending huge amounts.

    5. In Montgomery County, the issue is high-school start times. That’s where I have understood the effects of fatigue are biggest. But the paper deals with middle school (6th-8th) only. The author notes that the effects increase with each year, but I don’t understand why he didn’t do high school.

    6. The paper says “Draft: Do not cite or circulate without permission.” Can you really do that for a paper that you put up on a university website? (Also, for the author, in note 9 it’s not ‘suppervised’.)

    7. In response to Robin’s lat claim, we test and rank students so much for the same reason Wake County bussed them so much: to try to improve education of poor minorities, or at least appear to be trying to do that. That’s the goal of No Child Left Behind and almost every ‘well-intentioned’ state law on testing. It’s the opposite of Robin’s claimed motive (to force students to accept dominance and inequality).

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  • Psychohistorian

    Socializing workers is more a result of this than a cause. I actually interviewed my principle on this issue back in high school; his response was that moving school start times back would create too many problems for after-school programs and other such obligations. Of course, simply eliminating an hour of schooltime probably wouldn’t have hurt anyone, were it done judiciously.

    Interestingly, most students at this school built their schedules to start about 100 minutes later than usual start time on 4/7 of schooldays.

  • Douglas Knight

    The site RJB links to lists 15 schools that changed their start times before 2005. The claim that 80 districts have changed their times is widely attributed to the national sleep foundataion (eg, NPR in 2007), but I don’t find the claim on sleepfoundation.org. While that might not be a large percentage of students, it offers a good opportunity for study, particularly for control of demographics.

    Also, I’d like to know what happens to car crash rates. There are two studies suggesting a large effect, but it could use replication.

  • Jess, parents often pay far more than their bus driver cost share to get three percentile point gains. And why not just make it legal again for kids to ride bikes to school?
    dWj, as a parent of teens I can say making teens rise early is *not* more convenient for babysitting them.
    RJB, saying we wouldn’t pay a dime to help students learn better seems to me a pretty damning critique of the “school is for learning” story.
    mtraven, yes of course all social institutions provide many functions.

    • Jess, parents often pay far more than their bus driver cost share to get three percentile point gains.

      Most parents do not. From what I can tell, it’s precisely wealthy areas in which parents do, in fact, clamor for later start times.

      And why not just make it legal again for kids to ride bikes to school?

      I’ve never heard of it being illegal; it’s certainly not where I’m from or live now. The problem is that many kids live well out of biking distance, or have to cross highways.

  • Doug S.

    In the case of my school district, the superintendent claimed that the early start time was so that students who participated in sports and other extracurricular activities wouldn’t have to leave school early to make it to events on time. Other people said that many students preferred the earlier start time because it gave them more time in the afternoon to work at a part-time job.

    I find both responses rather unconvincing…

  • In “When Brute Force Fails” Mark Kleiman argues that holding off releasing kids from school before adults get back from work would significantly reduce the crime rate. He blames judging the school system only based on school performance (rather than broader social ramifications) and teachers who want less traffic for their commutes.

  • There’s an obvious alternative to later school start times: earlier bed times for teens. The paper makes only fleeting references to this. It claims that hormones make it more difficult for adolescents to adjust to earlier bed times (not that it’s impossible for them to go to bed earlier; just that it’s a hard adjustment), and also that sports, work, family and social schedules (i.e., staying up till midnight texting your friends??) make it difficult for teens to get to bed early.

    Well, it may be a lot more fun for teens to stay up late and show up to school later in the morning, but should we alter our school schedules for the chief purpose of accommodating teens’ preferences?

    My parents enforced a 10:30 bedtime for my siblings and I on school nights, and I often voluntarily awoke early so that I could play Tradewars on a BBS and not get yelled at for tying up the phone line (ahh, the days before the Internet was in every household). Maybe I was a freak (in more ways than my sleep habits, probably), but I never had trouble staying awake for my morning classes.

    • This is more or less what I was getting ready to say. It seems to me that having your teens go to bed earlier would have the same effect. More, a later start tie for school would just encourage them to stay up even later. We’d just end up chasing them around the clock.

      Which doesn’t negate the point about schools as socializing for industrial society — something increasingly irrelevant (see Florida on the Creative Class). It would be nice if we replaced schooling with learning, but th latter requires the participation of the person, while the former does not. Let’s talk about how to realistically deal with that.

    • JYC

      I’ve tried sleeping earlier and honestly it didn’t help at all. and also it was proven that teens have a easier time focusing on work and whatnot at later times there were several times that my highschool started at around 9:00, 9:15 or 9:30 due to finals and whatnot and there seemed to be no problem whatsoever because most of the people at my school walk to school anyways and i’m pretty sure alot of people actually liked that schedule a lot better including my parents

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  • Charles Twardy

    I seem to recall a couple of years ago Fairfax county parents and school board reviewed the issue, concluded the reports were right about teens, tried to find a way to let teens sleep later, and gave up because they couldn’t figure out how to manage the bus schedule around other parental constraints.

    It would be indeed be interesting to compare spending on SAT prep. to hiring more bus drivers.

    • JYC

      parents don’t pay for the bus drivers but SAT Prep. Schools don’t pay for the SAT Prep but the bus drivers. I see no problem. Especially when my school doesn’t even have buses.

  • “There’s an obvious alternative to later school start times: earlier bed times for teens.”

    Of course someone who never had trouble waking up early would say this. Teens have trouble waking up early more than younger or older people. *I* have trouble waking up early, or at any given time every day, more than 99.5% of everyone. I have tried for many years to adjust to a given time for waking up, and I can tell you that it’s absolutely impossible for me. Many teens have exactly the same problem I do to a much lesser degree. Going to bed earlier is not an option. Laying in bed, awake, for an hour or more, doing nothing but trying to go to sleep, does not make you more rested in the mornings.

    Over long periods, people can’t change their natural sleep schedules more than about 30 minutes in either direction without huge disruptions, such as wildly varying amounts of sleep and being *extremely* sleepy when forced to wake up early. If you naturally go to bed at 12, it’s simply not possible to go to bed at 10:30 every night without making huge adjustments in your life, and for many it’s not possible full stop.

    There’s plenty you can do to mess up your own sleep, but there’s a limit on what you can do to fix it.

  • Solid analysis. As the Dead Prez song goes, “School is like a 12 step brainwash camp.” It’s a horrifically oppressive institution.

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  • Andrew

    In Australia, we all started at around 8:45-9:00. I guess that is because we don’t rely on school buses over here. I used to get up at at around 8:30 and still manage to ride the ~3km to high school by ~8:55+-.

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