Colby College economist Finley Edwards, heeding the frequent calls by parents to institute later start times for school days, decided to put to the test the idea that beginning class later in the day would have a positive impact on academic outcomes. His report, titled Do Schools Begin Too Early? The effect of start times on student achievement, which will appear in the May issue of EducationNext, found that there’s some justification behind those claims.
Edwards limited his study to middle schoolers in Wake County, North Carolina and analyzed their math and science results over the period of 2000-2006. While accounting for mitigating factors, such as race, economic circumstances and level of parental education, he was able to narrow the comparison only to similarly-situated students whose school difference was only the lateness of the start of the school day. In addition, he also looked at the variations in test scores in schools where the start time was pushed back or forward during the period of study.
The results showed that pushing the start of the middle school day forward by one hour, from 7:30am to 8:30am corresponded with score increases of 2%-3%. Edwards characterized the findings as “substantively important,”
“Results from Wake County also suggest that later start times have the potential to be a more cost-effective method of increasing student achievement than other common educational interventions such as reducing class size,” notes Edwards. If all schools started at the same later time, for example, the cost in Wake County for moving each student in the two earlier bus times to a single, later bus schedule would be roughly $150 per student each year. By comparison, a Tennessee study of class sizes finds that reducing class size by one-third increases per pupil expenditures by $2,151 per student each year (1996 dollars).
It has long been suggested that the later start time would benefit kids who are experiencing hormonal changes due to puberty and thus might be running a sleep deficit. The lack of sleep has long been associated with a reduction in cognitive performance in both children and adults. Combined with sleep difficulties experienced by children starting between the age of 13 and 14, and it’s not difficult to see why it would be impossible for students with early class times to perform at their peak.
The data also showed, that the improvement in test scores wasn’t uniformly distributed among all students. Those scoring in the bottom third of all test takers, saw a benefit twice as large as those from the top third, thus making later class times one of the most cost-efficient tools for schools working to narrow achievement gaps.