It's time. Make the school year longer, and start it later in the day.
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Getting on the Same Page
Parents and lawmakers alike are yearning for a way to address the missed academic and developmental opportunities that coronavirus has unfortunately created. Logistical changes to the American school day can afford the chance to seize this moment, and capitalize on an otherwise trying state of affairs.
School reform has long been a contentious topic, particularly in a country that finds itself so politically divided in modern times. Many pockets of the country have been historically wary of innovative educational practices. Advances around the edges present a palatable alternative that can exist without the usual strategies from the ideological sidelines. Let’s tinker with the actual nuts and bolts of education; specifically the amount of time in the classroom and at what hour the school day begins. This country is hurting and in need of answers to address the educational chasm created by the pandemic. In that spirit, we should pursue a longer school year that starts later in the day.
This suggestion is predicated upon research that highlights the biological and cognitive benefits of starting the school day later and the overdue adjustment to the number of days spent in school to more closely mirror peer countries that are observing better educational outcomes. South Korea, for example, has routinely outpaced the United States in educational outcomes while attending school nearly 40 more days a year than U.S. students. This strategy figures to be effective because it is not particularly nuanced. It is, in fact, intuitive to the average parent, legislator, taxpayer, and student.
No Time Like the Present
Building a political coalition around these two reforms looks particularly feasible right now, given the great deal of in-person instruction that has been missed (and will be missed) as a result of the ongoing pandemic. There figures to be huge political will, on both sides of the aisle, for recouping the incalculable loss of direct and supplemental instructional time, both from this upcoming school year and last. Pushes for innovation on school scheduling can capitalize on that will and momentum.
Perhaps more so than any time in recent American history, most sectors have demonstrated an appetite to adapt on behalf of their employees and their families. Millions began working at home, with flex scheduling and creative solutions. School day innovation, which has been dismissed in the past as being counterproductive to the advertised start of the traditional American workday, has never had a better national climate than it could at this very moment to adapt for the benefit of our students.
The current school day for countless districts across the country is empirically harmful to student development. A staggering 93% of high schools begin before 8:30 AM, despite evidence that a start time that early may be incompatible with student development. In fact, nearly 3 in every 4 American high schoolers report insufficient sleep. Findings like these are alarming given that a host of consequences are tied to lack of sleep in adolescents, including a heightened risk of fatal car crashes and increased rates of reported depression. If legislation is passed that mandated schools to start no later than 9 AM (a suggestion highlighted by the Center for Disease Control, and backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and others), then many students would have more time to sleep, eat breakfast, and learn within the optimal learning window from a cognitive standpoint.
There is also evidence to suggest the vast majority of students are still secreting melatonin as late as 8 AM, which is yet another obstacle to early morning learning. Simply going to bed earlier is not an option. While many students will still be tasked with waking early for other family obligations, not being required to learn during that time is a net positive.
This benefit is not exclusive to students, but also to the many adults that work to educate students every day. Additional school days would result in more content covered, more time spent between educators and their students, and less time in between traditional academic years for the achievement gap to widen. In other words, if more content is covered in a year due to students having more school days, then the regressive effects of summer break can be partially mitigated. In short, these proposals have the capacity to make a seismic and progressive difference in student outcomes at a time in which our students desperately need intervention.
Of course, as is the case when tinkering with any institution as dynamic and essential as public education, there are drawbacks. Namely, the perceived cost to a student’s extracurricular capacity, labor compensation, student burnout, transportation concerns related to later-day bussing, and the aforementioned supposed incompatibility with the schedule of the American business day.
These are palatable challenges that pale in comparison to the potential benefits. With careful planning, these symptoms, and others like them, can be largely mitigated. For example, research suggests that preadolescent children are far more sleep resilient than adolescent students, which might allow for greater school schedule staggering that addresses transportation cost concerns. More generally, strategies can be adopted by building collaboration and coalition with local and national stakeholders.
A Prelude to Thinking Outside the Box
An old friend, Occam’s Razor, suggests that the simplest answer is often the best. Among the most uncomplicated of issues that our nation’s students will face in upcoming years is an enormous amount of missed school. Structurally extending the academic year, while also adjusting the start time, might be our “simplest” solution to this prevailing issue. The pandemic has underscored systemic inequities that exist in our schools. Creative solutions to the significant issues our schools face will one day expand upon the very scaffolding that is built today. Let’s lay the groundwork.