Commentary: Not Late Enough (Start)?

Sleep DeprivationIn the last few years, the Davis School District has been looking into ways to start classes later, following “an abundance of compelling research that supports the delaying of school start times.”

The findings suggest that teens change biologically “in such a way that they cannot fall asleep as early as they did when they were younger, but they continue to need more sleep than adults.”  Studies show that teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep, but get about 7.6 hours of sleep on average.

Moreover, they find that inadequate sleep negatively impacts important brain functions essential to learning processes, while it is also associated with higher rates of obesity and depression, lower levels of motivation and attentiveness, and increased rates of traffic accidents.

The district has sent out a notice that they are adjusting their schedule to address these concerns following the school board’s vote that “instructed the Superintendent to make secondary school start times later, while continuing to promote the education of parents, students, staff and the community regarding the importance of sleep for teens and the factors that affect the quality and duration of teenage sleep.”

As such, next year the high school will start at 8:15 while ending no later than 3:30, and junior high schools will start at or about 8:30 while retaining seven-period days.

However, as a letter writer in the paper points out, “The problem is that the research links they sent out uniformly stress that students need a start time of no earlier than 9 a.m., or even 10 a.m., and that under no circumstances should school start before 8:30 as students need to sleep until at least 8 a.m. every day.”

The letter writer here is not completely accurate.

For instance, they cite, “The Children’s National Medical Center’s Blueprint for Change Team. ‘School Start Time Change: An In-Depth Examination of School Districts in the United States.’”

That article actually notes that the Fairfax (Virginia) school board “approved a recommendation for starting high schools later, between 8 and 8:10 a.m. and ending between 2:45 and 2:55 p.m.”

The research by the CDC and US Department of Education noted, “Schools that have a start time of 8:30 AM or later allow adolescent students the opportunity to get the recommended amount of sleep on school nights: about 8.5 to 9.5 hours.”

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) also notes, “In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging middle and high schools to modify start times to no earlier than 8:30 AM to aid students in getting sufficient sleep to improve their overall health. School start time policies are not determined at the federal or state level, but at the district or individual school level. Future studies may determine whether this recommendation results in later school start times.”

So the link cited by the letter writer does not back up their point that research uniformly stresses that students need a start time of no earlier than 9 am.

Where did they get the idea of a 9 or 10 am start time?

The article by Paul Kelley and Clark Lee, “Later School Start Times in Adolescence: Time for Change,” makes reference to these times.

They write, “While start times are typically set at the local level, leaders can help raise awareness of the overwhelming evidence that later starts are beneficial.”  They write, “The current context is one in which there is a growing pressure to change to later start times for adolescent students.

“Of particular note is the House Concurrent Resolution calling for secondary schools to begin the school day no earlier than 9 a.m. Already, schools in the United Kingdom and New Zealand start at 10 a.m. or later for older adolescents, with strong positive impacts on achievement and behaviors. Many colleges already start at these times both in the United States and internationally.”

The authors note, “The cost of implementing policies related to later start times is negligible. Later school start times can improve learning and reduce health risks. It is a change that is in the best interests of our students, families, communities and nation.”

That is a far cry from stating that the research uniformly stresses that students need a start time of no earlier than 9 am.

There is certainly little justification for the statement, “A start time of 8:15 for high school students, the very students the research notes need to sleep later than middle school students, while starting middle school at 8:30, makes a mockery of the research and, perhaps, of the board’s instructions to the district.”

The letter writer not only overstates the conclusion of the research, but also ignores that there are several factors to be balanced.

Wednesdays are crazy days in the district.  We have three kids in school right now – one in TK (transitional kindergarten), one in 1st grade, and one in 7th grade.  On Wednesday, our TK student has to go in the morning (normally he’s in the afternoon class) which means he goes from 8:30 until 11:45.  Our first grader goes from 8:30 until 1:30.  And our 7th grader starts at 9:45 (his late start day) and then goes until his normal exit time.

How are working people supposed to deal with that kind of schedule?  And that’s the problem setting up a later start – a lot of students still have to be dropped off at school around 8 am because their parents work.

The other practical consideration is that something has to give – a later start either means fewer courses or a later ending.  Neither are necessarily good things.  A later ending impacts extra-curricular activities and pushes homework later into the day.

Bottom line, it is easy to get worked up about what the ideal start time is for schools, and it appears that moving it toward 8:30 is beneficial, but there are other considerations here.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Mark Kropp


    Research? Sometimes it ignores the obvious…cows are milked in Brazil before the sun rises! (sometimes by kids). Coffee is picked at sunrise and workers start 6am. The school buses roll at 5 and school starts at 7. Children are done by noon to go and PLAY!

    Kids in Davis can sleep to 8 but get to watch TV and use their computers until midnight.

    We have all studied at 3am in college?

    This seems more an economics discussion then primarily the best known scientific time for ultimate learning, otherwise, of course, if I am tired, I am not going to be listening!

  2. John Hobbs

    Incredibly, some rare humans have been able to adapt to changing schedules and unscheduled demands. It is almost like we have had to, just so the species could survive and flourish.

    Perhaps Davisites are too insulated from the nominal challenges of life. That would account for their aversion and temerity to change.

  3. JosephBiello

    I am honestly perplexed by this issue.

    The research seems absolutely clear that teenagers, in general, need a certain minimum amount of sleep (9.5 hours per day, apparently) to encourage healthy brain development.   I accept that completely.

    Yet, achieving this by later start time seems to be without hard evidence.   Our individual clocks adjust  – albeit reluctantly, to time and light changes.   As an example, Daylight Savings Time (DST) has only recently reset everyone’s clock so that each of our children are waking up one hour earlier every day.   If there were an absolute clock within each of us, then we are abruptly forcing a 7:15 school start time on kids after the beginning of DST.

    Furthermore, one cannot argue that our clocks are exactly set to the solar clock.  In the middle latitudes (where most of America lives), daylight varies by about 6 hours from solstice to solstice.

    It seems like the big issue is getting teenagers to shut down at an appropriate time.  Apparently, it takes teenagers longer to shut down after, say dinner or their last activity of the evening.   It would be interesting (if anyone knows of this) to see more research that determines the time between last activity (and which activity counts as the “last activity” of the night) and the beginning of restful sleep.








  4. Tia Will

    What seems to be missing from the discussion so far is the concept of differentiation. Individuals typically do need the number of hours stated for their respective ages. However, people vary widely in their optimal sleep time ( early bird and night owl concept). If we truly wanted to optimize learning, we would consider complete individual differentiation to include not only optimal learning styles, but also off sets in individual circadian rhythms. Some classes and activities such as team sports and orchestra need to be taught to all students simultaneously and could be scheduled mid day. Other subjects could have individual and group sessions scheduled early and late to allow each student to study at their own rate and time. It would require a lot of flexibility and a new vision of what education might look like, but could have very big payoffs through avoiding warehousing of students and missed learning opportunities.

  5. Todd Edelman

    And that’s the problem setting up a later start – a lot of students still have to be dropped off at school around 8 am because their parents work.

    In other words, in order to further enable the already necessary divorce of a parent’s commute from their child’s, we have to further increase the ability for kids age 8 and up to take the bus, cycle or walk to school on their own. Children below 8 who are more likely need to be taken to school by a parent (or older sibling, just not a teenager) should start school earlier so that parents don’t have to alter their commute schedule. While other policies should push hard for a parent’s drop off being by active modes (i.e. current city policy), separating the more car-intensive early bell from the more bike- and ped-intensive later bell will have safety benefits. This will need to be complemented by technical solutions such as bicycle lockers at the train station in the Cycling Capitol of the USA that can accommodate typical child-carrying bicycles (not the current situation).

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