Health Research on Optimal Learning Hours
In the early 1990s, in response to research indicating that teenagers have biologically different sleep and wake patterns than preadolescent and adult populations, seven high schools in Minneapolis shifted their start times from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. beginning with the 1997-1998 school year. The study, titled “Changing Times: Findings from the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times,” revealed that the percentage of high school students continuously enrolled rose significantly when school started later. The study also showed that “attendance rates for all students in grades 9, 10, and 11 improved in the years from 1995 to 2000, with the greatest rate of improvement for grade 9 students.”
Another benefit was the potential for grade improvement. After three years, there was a slight boost in grades overall when compared to the three years prior, but the differences were not statistically significant. Students reported less sleepiness in class and an overall improved mental state, leading to a more productive learning environment.
THE Journal adds that “researchers from the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School and the University of Nevada, Reno reported that students could improve their learning and have fewer health problems if schools accommodated the unique circadian rhythms of young people.”
Other benefits include a decrease in disciplinary action and student-involved car accidents, as well as an increase in state assessment scores, college admissions test scores, and the quality of student-family interaction. Researchers suggest that simply modifying start times would be less expensive than other kinds of interventions schools are using.
New Options Being Explored
Educational innovators are encouraging a more flexible approach to scheduling, based on student needs that may vary during the year, as well as from year to year. Blogger and school administrator J. Robinson writes: “One of the most difficult lessons I have learned as principal of an innovative high school is that there is no law or policy that prescribes what the school’s master schedule should look like from year to year. In fact, innovative high schools see schedule flexibility as a must in order to fit the schedule to student needs, rather than fit students to a schedule.”
Using block scheduling, extending school days, and varying class sizes are just a few of the ways that TeachStrong, a coalition of education groups, is proposing for schools and districts willing to tinker with scheduling alternatives. It is part of a growing recognition that the traditional bell schedule is too rigid to allow the flexibility that 21st century students need. According to education consultant Heidi Hayes Jacobs, adhering strictly to such a schedule hinders real reform. Instead, out-of-the-box structures are more likely to lead to innovative learning strategies.
Personalized learning through education technology might offer some of these innovative solutions. Ed tech can help teachers choose, organize, and deliver instruction more efficiently. It also allows opportunities for students to work at their own pace with access to information 24/7 through a computer and an Internet connection.
The 2015 K-12 NMC Horizon Report says: “Methods such as project- and challenge-based learning call for school structures that enable students to move from one learning activity to another more organically, removing the limitations of the traditional bell schedule. The multidisciplinary nature of these contemporary approaches has popularized the creative application of technology and fostered innovative designs of school models that link each class and subject matter to one another.”
E-learning options can provide new ways of considering how to build flexibility into the school day. Neither students nor teachers today have to be physically present to be engaged in relevant learning experiences.
Other Impacts to Consider
The advantages of having a later start time include a better match between school schedules and students’ sleep rhythms, allowing students to get the sleep they need, and evidence that suggests that more well-rested students will perform better in all areas. There are other repercussions to consider before pushing back the first bell, however, as students and teachers aren’t the only ones impacted by scheduling changes.
The downside includes possibly negative impacts on parents’ schedules, transportation logistics, and extracurricular activities. Changing start times can wreak havoc on parents’ schedules especially if children are operating under separate schedules at different schools. These same types of conflicts can impact children’s sports schedules as well. A later school start time means practices and games can potentially extend children’s and coaches days into the late evening, when not all recreational areas have the lighting needed for participants. Administrators and other staff members like bus drivers and childcare providers will also be impacted by a shift in schedule.
Some schools have tried and abandoned later start times and other scheduling variations. The biggest challenge may be getting everybody to agree on the optimum scheduling times. Saratoga High School Principal, Paul Robinson, underscored the challenge of drafting a schedule that is satisfactory to everyone, saying, “If we had left this up to 1,300 families, we’d have 1,300 different schedules. It’s just impossible for us to make sure we’re meeting the needs of everybody.”
Takeaway: There is growing recognition that later school start times, and varied and more flexible approaches to class scheduling, can positively benefit students. Challenges remain, though, most notably the ability to select options that will be accepted by all impacted stakeholders. Technology may hold some potential to help address the need for the type of flexibility that can best serve all or most needs.
1. “Changing Times: Findings from the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times” NASSP Bulletin. December 2002.
2. “Research: Early School Start Times Hurt Students, Hinder Performance” THE Journal. September 9, 2015.
3. “Later School Start Times Promote Adolescent Well-Being” American Psychological Association. 2014.
4. “21st Century Perspective on Creating Innovative School Schedules” The 21st Century Principal. April 17, 2013.
5. “RELEASE: Great Teaching Takes Time–So Give Teachers More of It, Says TeachStrong Coalition” Center for American Progress. September 9, 2016.
6. “Rethinking Reshaping Schools” Education World. N.d.
7. “What if Students Could Study What They Love, at a Pace That Suits Their Needs?” The Hechinger Report. September 21, 2016.
8. “The Impact of eLearning on K12 Education” eLearning Industry. March 15, 2015.
9. “Pros and Cons: Should Schools Start Later in the Morning?” N.d.
10. “Saratoga High School Schedule Changes Stirs Up” The Mercury News. August 11, 2016.