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THE BLOG

Sleep Is Fundamental to Effective Education Reform

There's a far more fundamental need that we continue to overlook and that is SLEEP. Most teens go to school sleep deprived. They frequently skip the first period because it's too early, or doze throughout the day.
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A teenager girl laying on her bed
A teenager girl laying on her bed

In the US we spend over a billion dollars a year on standardized testing for the purpose of improving public education. Reauthorization of ESSA isn't likely to change this since the testing is still required. Standardized testing drives standardized curricula and standardized pacing. The obvious reason this isn't diminishing the achievement gap is that students aren't standardized and we are ignoring their needs.

So what are their needs? Engagement, challenge, creativity, success, fun, independence. Yes on all of these and I won't go into that now. There's a far more fundamental need that we continue to overlook and that is SLEEP. Most teens go to school sleep deprived. They frequently skip the first period because it's too early, or doze throughout the day.

The data is solid on this. The adolescent brain needs far more sleep than most get, and most teens are night owls due to changes in their brain chemistry. This isn't their fault or the fault of their devices. It's a hormonal reality of adolescence. No matter what we do to improve academic outcomes, it won't work if we don't give adolescents the opportunity to get enough sleep and come to school in an alert and engaged mode.

Seattle Public Schools is the largest urban school district in the US to change start times to meet the needs of adolescents. This will go into effect next school year. All high schools and middle schools will start at 8:50am. It took an organization of sleep experts, pediatricians, parents and teachers ten years to make this happen. As a school board director I worked with my colleagues for four years to set it as a high priority and overcome all the obstacles.

In working through this process it struck me that most of the pushback came from driven adults who are accustomed to sleep deprivation. In our workaholic culture there's great contempt for the need for sleep. Many seem to believe that we're indulging teens by giving them the opportunity to put in the 8-10 hours they need every night. It's widely believed that teens would and should go to sleep earlier if parents asserted more control and took away their devices. We heard that later start times would interfere with sports, after school activities and employment. We heard that there were much higher priorities in terms of boosting academic performance.

We also heard from sleep experts that requiring teens to be at school at 7:30 in the morning is like asking an adult to be at work at 5:30 in the morning. If we ignore the biological need for adequate sleep and changes in adolescent sleep patterns all other efforts to improve education will continue to fall short. Switching to later school start times for adolescents won't cost us a billion dollars a year, but it may do more than standardized testing. The research shows that teens will come to school with higher functioning brains and immune systems. Their mental health will improve. They will be less prone to accidents, substance abuse and even teen pregnancy. As more districts make this switch there will be ample data on the impact on test scores and other indicators of academic achievement.

In Seattle we're now working through the logistical challenges and I'll continue to blog as we go. I encourage others to make this a very high priority for their school districts. All we are saying is give sleep a chance.