Let's look at the economic argument against earlier school start times
May 23, 2012 4:00 AM
By Dr. Wendy M. Troxel
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).
More traffic accidents
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, falling asleep while driving is responsible for at least 100,000 vehicle crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths each year in the United States. The direct yearly cost is estimated at $12.5 billion.
Teenagers are at the highest risk of motor vehicle accidents caused by a driver falling asleep, and studies have shown that delaying school start times reduces the occurrence of such accidents.
Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health suggests that sleeping less than seven hours per night increases the risk of a teenager engaging in property crimes and that sleeping less than five hours increases the risk of violent behavior. Delayed school start times, on the other hand, are associated with a reduction in adolescent criminal behavior.
As we all know, crime costs our society countless billions -- in direct economic losses, increased insurance rates and various aspects of the criminal justice system, from police, to courts, to juvenile facilities and prisons.
More health problems
Solid scientific evidence, including a great deal of research by University of Pittsburgh faculty members, demonstrates that insufficient sleep is associated with increased risk of obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and emotional and behavioral problems. The combined public health costs of the obesity epidemic in children and adolescents and its associated cardiovascular morbidities are estimated at $45 billion a year.
Wasted research dollars
Finally, all that science on the negative effects of sleep loss that the school board would be ignoring if it moves school start times earlier? ... Most of it was supported by millions of taxpayer dollars distributed by the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control.
Dollars do matter. We understand there is no easy fix for the Pittsburgh public schools' budget problems. But making a short-sighted decision that flies in the face of unequivocal scientific evidence would, in the long term, cost the city of Pittsburgh far more in terms of lost wages, higher rates of crime, more motor vehicle accidents and increased rates of obesity and associated health complications.
Before deciding to move up start times -- whether by an hour or a half hour -- the Pittsburgh school board should weigh against a negligible savings in dollars the considerable costs to our children and to our society.
As scientists, parents and members of the Pittsburgh community, we strongly oppose making school start times earlier, even by a half hour. We also encourage all who live in the district to voice their opposition by contacting members of the school board (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-622-3770).
Dr. Wendy M. Troxel is assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This article was submitted on behalf of more than 50 Pitt and UPMC sleep researchers and clinicians.