The High Cost of Sleepy Teens Let's Look at the Economic Argument against Earlier School Start Times

Article excerpt

Let's talk money.

In response to the public outcry over the Pittsburgh public school district's proposal to move school start times one hour earlier, Superintendent Linda Lane announced Friday that most high schools would start only a half-hour earlier.

This is a step in the right direction, but starting high school at 7:36 a.m. for most Pittsburgh teenagers is still too early. Robust evidence has long demonstrated the adverse consequences of early school start times for teenagers' academic, mental, social and physical well-being. And no, they can't just go to bed earlier -- their hormones won't let them.

But while these points have been clearly and publicly articulated, they have been largely ignored by the district, which claims it could save $1.2 million a year on transportation costs by moving start times one hour earlier. It still might do so at some point. "We may have to revisit the student transportation plan in the future" is how Superintendent Lane put it.

As a sleep researcher and clinical psychologist who specializes in treating sleep problems, I am more qualified to comment on the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating the potential damage to teenagers of sleep loss due to earlier school start times, but since the district appears more driven by financial concerns, let's talk about whether earlier start times would actually save money.

School officials talk of spending less if the district transports kids itself instead of buying them Port Authority transit passes. But the potential savings of early school start times turn out almost everywhere to be negligible and far out-weighed by the long- term societal and public health costs of depriving adolescents of sleep. In fact, a 2011 Brookings Institution study estimated that delaying school start times by one hour -- moving them from roughly 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. -- would provide nine times the benefits compared to costs.

Why? Let's move on to ...

Reduced lifetime earnings

Keeping the ultimate goal of our education system in mind (to prepare students to become contributing members of society), evidence suggests that earlier school start times are associated with significant reductions in academic achievement -- with the strongest effects among the most economically disadvantaged students.

According to Brookings, "Early school start times reduce performance among disadvantaged students by an amount equivalent to having a highly ineffective teacher." This reduced performance, Brookings scholars have calculated, translates into roughly $17,500 in reduced lifetime earnings per student.

The fact that earlier school times affect economically disadvantaged students most is particularly alarming given that 71 percent of Pittsburgh public school students fall into this category (that is, they qualify for reduced-price or free lunch). …