School doze: Time to rethink the start of classes

(CBS News) Commentary by Lauren Daisley

For kids across America, it's that time of year. Back to school! When the morning bell rings, students in the ninth grade and up will have to be at their desks by about 7:00 a.m.

Grown-ups who start work at that hour get sympathy, and coffee. Most teenagers don't get either of those things.

I'm not suggesting "kids these days" have it harder than the ones of yesteryear who commonly did hard labor. But there is something about the start time of the school day that just doesn't work anymore.

The public school system was set up when farming was our dominant industry and most women didn't work outside the home. But now many do, and not so much on farms, which leaves a lot of kids with "latchkey" hours, and a lot of women struggling to arrange flexible work schedules in industries that can't allow it.

On top of that, scientists have discovered that older kids go through what's called a "sleep phase delay," a shift in their internal clocks that makes them fall asleep later and wake up later. Many teenagers can't physically conk out until after eleven, but still need to be up before six. That's brutal.

And it's not just my opinion. University of California sleep researcher Sara Mednick once told me that giving people less than five hours of sleep is an effective form of torture.

(So maybe when celebrities start acting bonkers and cancelling shows due to "exhaustion," I should be more sympathetic.)

Forty years ago, we got about two more hours a night. Today, we're chronically sleep-deprived.

Our culture seems to view it as a pastime for the unambitious. But it's fundamental to cognitive functioning. For example, slow-wave sleep helps your brain move information from short-term to long-term memory. Not a bad thing if you're trying to, say, learn.

Some school districts that tried starting the school day later found that attendance improved, students were late less often, and they were generally more alert.

If we tweaked the start time of the school day to line up with kids' circadian rhythms and our own grown-up work schedules:

  • Students would be able to think better and therefore perform better. Maybe they wouldn't even feel the need to pop so much Adderall.

  • More women would be able to work regular hours. So rah rah, gender equality!

  • And overall, people would be less, well, tortured.

That's worth the hubbub of rearranging bus schedules, don't you think?

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