Start school later for more learning

Middle schoolers do better when school starts — and ends — later, according to a North Carolina study by economist Finley Edwards described in Education Next.

. . . delaying school start times by one hour, from roughly 7:30 to 8:30, increases standardized test scores by at least 2 percentile points in math and 1 percentile point in reading.

Starting early has the most effect on older middle schoolers, supporting the theory that hormonal changes make it hard for adolescents to get to sleep in the early evening, Edwards writes. Students get more sleep and have fewer absences. But late starts have other advantages:  With less unsupervised time after school, latebirds spend more time on homework and watch less TV.

“The effect of a later start time in both math and reading is more than twice as large for students in the bottom third of the test-score distribution than for students in the top third,” Edwards found.

Start times had no effect on elementary students, the study found, but elementary schools start later than middle schools, so that could obscure the effect.

Districts could swap elementary and secondary school start times to improve achievement without spending more on busing, Edwards suggests. Or districts could invest in more buses to start all schools at 8:30 or later. The achievement gain would be similar to the effect of cutting class sizes at a fraction of the cost.

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  1. While I wholeheartedly agree that later start times positively impact students, I hate that we’re viewing it through its impact on standardized tests. How about promoting it simply for the overall well-being of the child. With all the brain research and sleep studies that identify later start times as healthy and more effective for learning, who cares about a percentage on standardized tests. Schools should start later – but test scores aren’t the reason.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I’ve said it numerous times on other posts about research on this blog. Any research that is based on standardized test results is a complete waste of time — just like standardized tests.

      Like mmazenko, I’d still like to see the day backed up. From my own experience as a middle school teacher, it would make a difference.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Which leads to two obvious questions:

        1. Is there some way to “assess” student competence that can be used to compare students in different schools.

        2. Does the “complete waste of time” apply to all tests or just “standardized tests?” Why or why not? (Okay, that’s three, but a “yes” or “no” without the “why or why not?” isn’t very useful.)

  2. gahrie says:

    Invest in more buses? What school district buses more than a fraction of its students anymore?

    You want to see crazy traffic? Go by your local school about five to ten minutes before the opening bell.

  3. But if school starts later, it ends later. Then there won’t be enough time left for sports practice and games. You really need to get your priorities straight.

    • Peace Corps says:

      That’s ok. The powers that be will let the jocks (don’t know the female equivalent) out of school an hour and a half early. They will learn more on the field than they will in class. ( I think I am being sarcastic, but I’m not sure. School is driving a little crazy right now.)

      • gahrie says:

        My school currently has a 7 period day, and we start at 7:25 AM and end at 2:55 PM. The sports teams are regularly dismissed at 1:00 PM and 1:30 PM.

      • Supersub says:

        How about if the practices counted towards Phys Ed and Health? That would also free up the schedules of the coaches, many of whom would likely be PE teachers.

    • Great – ironic – point, Paul.

      However, I’ve learned of numerous schools in the country who are holding school from 9 or later to 4:30 – and sports practices are held “before” school. Thus, when the kids are out at 4:30, they’re done for the day.

      What an idea!

  4. I agree with mmazenko: although it’s common sense that getting enough sleep is a part of good school performance, the real issue here is that school start times are often out of sync with the sleep needs of students, especially tweens and teens. Schools today start extraordinarily early – often in the 7 a.m. hour, with bus runs as early as 5:20 a.m. They also get out in the early afternoon, sometimes even before 2 p.m. It hasn’t always been this way, and the result is not only an epidemic of sleep deprivation (teens would need to be fast asleep by 8:30 p.m. or so to get enough of it with these hours) but a huge array of associated health and safety problems. Sadly, local school systems haven’t been able to return to more traditional school hours because vested interests and myth often trump the best interests of kids. For more on the growing national movement to resolve this problem, see

  5. I could not agree more with this article. My school district went from a 8:45 start time to a 7:45 start time two years ago to save money on buses. It has not worked to the kids’ best interests at all. My first period class is dead and the kids are more than half asleep. Our school test scores are down and I can not help but think that it has to do with the fact that we start so early and test so early.

  6. The students who might gain from a later start time might be offset by the number who, unsupervised once their parents leave for work, decide to take the day off.

    There is no perfect start time. The major problem with kids getting up on time is:

    1) They go to be too late – middle school students should be in bed by 9 pm. Yes, I know this is hard to enforce (I did for my own children – 9 pm on schooldays, 10 pm on the weekend). Have no electronic devices in their rooms. Make them “check in” their cell phones with a parent before bedtime.

    2) Lack of personal responsibility. I can’t tell you how many kids came late to 1st period class, then said, “the absence isn’t my fault – my mother was running late.”

    I told them that it was THEIR responsibility to assist them mother in getting out the door, including helping with younger kids, making breakfast, getting clothes for someone running behind, etc. They were shocked.

    • That should be “go to bed”.

    • Careful Linda, you can’t go around pointing out common sense things any educator knows when you have an economist pointing out why the aforementioned know nothing and he knows it all.

    • I told them that it was THEIR responsibility to assist them mother in getting out the door, including helping with younger kids, making breakfast, getting clothes for someone running behind, etc. They were shocked.

      That is absolutely none of your business, and a totally inappropriate response. What an obnoxious thing to do.

      Teachers who judge students for being late are identical in idiocy to the teachers who rationalize the students’ tardies.

      In fact, it’s utterly irrelevant why they are tardy, so the best thing for a teacher to do is shrug and tell the students to stop giving reasons. There are absolutes. They’ll just have to deal with them one way or another.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        I told them that it was THEIR responsibility to assist them mother in getting out the door, including helping with younger kids, making breakfast, getting clothes for someone running behind, etc. They were shocked.

        That is absolutely none of your business, and a totally inappropriate response. What an obnoxious thing to do.

        Well, yes and no.

        It seems pretty obvious that teachers *should* let students know at some point — maybe not in third grade, but certainly in high school — that getting to school on time is their responsibility.

        Cal has a point — to an extent. It really is irrelevant why a student is late in terms of evaluating the student’s performance. Late is pretty much late. (Though I do think that there really are good and bad reasons for being late, and that *some* of the good reasons probably should “excuse” the tardiness as a practical matter.)

        But the reason for tardiness is most certainly not irrelevant in terms of improving the student’s performance, which a teacher can, I think, legitimately take as a goal in the education of a student.

        So the teacher tells the student, “You are responsible for getting to school on time.” Presenting that assertion to a passive, silly teenager in a vacuum won’t necessarily do much. They will simply shrug their shoulders and say it’s out of their hands. Repeating the slogan will naturally be ineffective or even counterproductive. The student does not see themselves as responsible; they’re driven around by their mother, and it’s outside their control.

        At which point, of course, the teacher — assuming the legitimacy of trying to improve student performance in the first place, which Cal might disagree with — would seem to owe the student an explanation of how they aren’t just a passive object in their own lives, to owe the student a conversation about what sorts of problems the student faces, and what sorts of solutions are within the student’s control. If the student’s response is that their mom is always late getting out of the house, then a suggestion that perhaps the student could meet their responsibility for showing up on time by engaging in some of the behaviors that LindaF suggests is hardly inappropriate.

        So I agree that Linda’s approach isn’t good as an initial approach — it’s presumptuous and, yes, a little obnoxious. I also think she has her focus on the wrong thing as the object of student responsibility: it’s getting to school on time, and that might involve helping out mom or it might involve buying a bicycle.

        But I can also see how it might come about that a very similar conversation takes place and it is neither presumptuous nor obnoxious.

        • I don’t disagree with any of that. Remember, I didn’t say the teacher should shrug at the tardies. Just at the reasons.

  7. The reason why most kids (grades 6 and older) have problems getting
    out of bed in the morning is due to a lack of sleep caused by a bedtime
    which is often too late (in middle school, I had to be in bed by 10:00PM and
    in high school by 11:00PM, except when it was a friday or the day before a school

    The other reason is easy, way too much stimulation in the evening hours
    (iPod’s, Instant messaging, video gaming, energy/sugary drinks, etc), and
    junk food (after dinner). I never had problems getting up early in the morning
    and I still manage to get out of bed between 5 and 5:30AM most days of the

    Scientists can do all the studies they want to, but IMO, if they change the start
    times for middle and high schools to later in the morning, all this usually does
    is send a signal that students can stay up later.

    Here is an interesting thought, what happens when the student graduates
    from high school and finds they have a job which requires them to be at work at 8:00AM or earlier, or that they join the military (a D.I. screaming in your ear at
    0500 usually does the trick for most 18 year olds, I can assure you).

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It is dangerous to generalize from a non-random sample of one, namely yourself. Most kids really do change physically a puberty–I mean change in terms of how they “naturally” sleep. Their body gets tired later and wants to get up later. I know a significant number of students who report going to bed at ten or ten thirty and simply not being able to fall asleep–even though they had been able to just a year or so before.