Monday, January 14, 2008

Better Schooling Through Biology

Nancy Kalish, in a NYT Op-Ed advocates using biological research to provide guidance in reforming our education system in light of data that show adolescents would benefit from a high school schedule that started later.

Research shows that teenagers’ body clocks are set to a schedule that is different from that of younger children or adults. This prevents adolescents from dropping off until around 11 p.m., when they produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and waking up much before 8 a.m. when their bodies stop producing melatonin. The result is that the first class of the morning is often a waste, with as many as 28 percent of students falling asleep, according to a National Sleep Foundation poll. Some are so sleepy they don’t even show up, contributing to failure and dropout rates.

Moving the start time of high school back by one hour showed significant benefits, both specific to education and in peripheral gains, like student safety:

In 2002, high schools in Jessamine County in Kentucky pushed back the first bell to 8:40 a.m., from 7:30 a.m. Attendance immediately went up, as did scores on standardized tests, which have continued to rise each year. Districts in Virginia and Connecticut have achieved similar success. In Minneapolis and Edina, Minn., which instituted high school start times of 8:40 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. respectively in 1997, students’ grades rose slightly and lateness, behavioral problems and dropout rates decreased.

Later is also safer. When high schools in Fayette County in Kentucky delayed their start times to 8:30 a.m., the number of teenagers involved in car crashes dropped, even as they rose in the state.

This is but one example of how science can constructively inform policy and provide a directed goal to which we can strive as we reform conventional methods that were influenced not by anticipated benefits, but from mere logistical necessity. With the significant shifts in lifestyle following the departure from an agrarian industry base and the advent of the Internet and other telecommunications technologies, there is no reason why we cannot come up with a system that is not just feasible, but beneficial to groups said policy seeks to benefit.

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