Sample Advocacy Letter (Academic Achievement)
December 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
This sample letter focuses particularly on recent studies by economists assessing the effects of start times on student achievement before addressing the health benefits associated with later start times (here in docx). Alternate sample letters are available here (outline format) and here (comprehensive overview). As noted elsewhere, well after we prepared these sample letters, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its Adolescent School Start Time Policy Statement (here or here). That document, and/or start time observations from scientists, physicians (including the AAP), and economists (see, Appen. C), will likely be far more persuasive than anything we can offer.
Phone, fax, and/or email
Dear Superintendent Last Name and Members of the School Board,
On behalf of my children who are students in this district, and in support of the well-being of all students, I write now to urge the adoption of healthy start times at Middle and/or High School. These two well-established facts serve as the bases for my request: (i) overwhelming evidence supports the conclusion that later starting students outperform their earlier starting peers academically; and, (ii) safeguarding the welfare and potential of adolescent students requires a delay in morning classes until 8:30 a.m., or later.
As to the first point, economists have recently established a causal relationship between later start times and improved academic performance among adolescent students. Notably, however, even before economists weighed in, Kyla Wahlstrom, Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI), reported that in schools which have delayed start times, the academic trend following the change goes exclusively towards higher grades. “[T]rend lines show grades rise when schools open later. We never see trend lines suggesting grades go down.” (Lamberg, High Schools Find Later Start Time Helps Students’ Health and Performance (2009) 301 J. Am. Med. Assn. 21, p. 2200.)
Bearing in mind that biological adolescence lasts until around 19.5 years for women and 20.9 years for men (Roenneberg, Kuehnle, Pramstaller, Ricken, Havel, Guth, & Merrow, A marker for the end of adolescence (2004) 14 Current Biology 24, pp. 38–39; see also, Kruszelnicki, Teenage Sleep (May 3, 2007) ABC Science), University of California and United States Air Force Academy economists studied course results from 2004 to 2008 for 6,165 first semester Air Force Academy cadets, controlling for potentially confounding factors — grading structure, class selection and teachers — for example, to determine the “causal effect” of school scheduling upon adolescent academic achievement. (Carrell, Maghakian, & West, A’s from Zzzz’s? The Causal Effect of School Start Time on the Academic Performance of Adolescents (Aug. 2011) 3 Am. Economic J.: Economic Policy 3, pp. 62-81.)
Air Force Academy students have no choice over their course schedules and, during the years studied, were assigned start times ranging from 7:00 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. Unlike most high schools, all first-year students take the same classes and the same standardized course exams, providing a consistent objective outcome measure.
“We find that when a student is randomly assigned to a first period course starting prior to 8 a.m., they perform significantly worse in all their courses taken on that day compared to students who are not assigned to a first period course. Importantly, we find that this negative effect diminishes the later the school day begins. [¶] Our findings have important implications for education policy; administrators aiming to improve student achievement should consider the potential benefits of delaying school start time. A later start time of 50 minutes in our sample has the equivalent benefit as raising teacher quality by roughly one standard deviation. Hence, later start times may be a cost-effective way to improve student outcomes for adolescents.” (Id., pp. 63, 80, italics added.)
“Despite our use of university-level data, we believe our findings are applicable to the high school student population more generally because we consider only freshmen students in their first semester at USAFA. Like high school seniors, first semester college freshman are still adolescents and have the same biological sleep patterns and preferences as those in their earlier teens. However, we recognize that USAFA students are not the average teen; they were high-achievers in high school and chose to attend military service academy. Although we do not know for certain if school start times affect high-achievers or military-types differently than teenagers in the general population, we have no reason to believe that the students in our sample would be more adversely affected by early start times. Because the students in our study self-selected into a regimented lifestyle, if anything, we believe our estimates may be a lower-bound of the effect for the average adolescent.” (Id., p. 63, italics in original.)
The economists found that a 50 minute delay in the first class increased grades by 0.15 standard deviations. (Id., pp. 62-81; see, Jacob & Rockoff, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments (Sept. 2011) Hamilton Project, Brookings Inst., p. 8) Writing for the Brookings Institute, economists from Columbia University and the University of Michigan agree the Air Force Academy study may have “broader implications. [¶] College freshmen are just slightly older than high school students and share many of the biological characteristics associated with their sleep cycles. While Air Force cadets are clearly a special group, we cannot think of a good rationale why such high-achieving and highly disciplined young men and women would be more adversely affected by early start times than are typical teenagers.” (Jacob & Rockoff, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments, supra, Hamilton Project, Brookings Inst., p. 8.)
In a study published this year, Finley Edwards, visiting Professor of Economics at Colby College, compiled test data covering a 7-year period for middle school students in Wake County, North Carolina, now the 16th largest school district in the country. Edwards‘ study analyzes data for students beginning classes according to their bus scheduling; i.e., Tier I classes (7:30-7:45), and Tier II classes (8:00-8:45). (Tier III classes (9:15 a.m.) are reserved for elementary school students.) Edwards examined standardized test data from the 14 middle schools changing start times by 30 minutes or more during the study period (2000-2006), and compared test scores for respective grade levels. Edwards also examined individual achievement before and after the change. (Edwards, Early to Rise? The Effect of Daily Start Times on Academic Performance (Dec. 2012) 31 Economics of Education Rev. 6, pp. 970-983.)
The data showed that starting school one hour later (i.e., at 8:30 a.m.) led to average gains of 1.5 to 3 percentile points in standardized math test scores (0.06 to 0.09 standard deviations) and standardized reading test scores (0.03 to 0.10 standard deviations). With most middle schools beginning at 8:15 a.m., the gains in Edwards‘ data derive largely from the changes from 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. Disadvantaged students benefited the most, with effects roughly twice as large as advantaged students. In addition, the benefits of later start times increased as the children progressed through adolescence. (Ibid.) Moreover, tests administered to high school sophomores showed “[t]he benefits of a later start time in middle school appear to persist through at least the 10th grade.” (Edwards, Do Schools Begin Too Early? (Summer 2012) 12 Education Next 3.) By contrast, “the negative impact of early start times persists over time.” (Edwards, Early to Rise? The Effect of Daily Start Times on Academic Performance, supra, 31 Economics of Education Rev. 6, p. 981.)
Edwards also found later start times associated with decreased absences, less time spent watching television and a greater amount of time spent on homework, indicating that these factors may help explain why later starting students have higher test scores. (Edwards, Early to Rise? The Effect of Daily Start Times on Academic Performance, supra, 31 Economics of Education Rev. 6, p. 971.) Edwards concludes that “an increase in start times by 1 h would lead to a 3 percentile point gain in both math and reading test scores for the average student.” (Id., p. 982.) Auburn University Professor of Psychology Joseph Buckhalt cites Edwards‘ study as “direct evidence” of the “measurable significant effect” of later start times on adolescent academic achievement. (Buckhalt, Can Later Start Times Affect School Achievement? (Sept. 30, 2012) Psychology Today.)
Relying upon the foregoing studies, the biological evidence, a recent study by Cortes, et al., and data reflecting the prevalence of sleep deprivation among adolescents attending early starting schools, Brookings Institute economists “conservatively” estimate that shifting middle and high school start times “from roughly 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.[,]” will increase academic achievement by 0.175 standard deviations on average, with effects for disadvantaged students roughly twice as large as advantaged students, at little or no cost to schools; i.e., a 9 to 1 benefits to costs ratio when utilizing single-tier busing, the most expensive transportation method available. (Jacob & Rockoff, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments, supra, Hamilton Project, Brookings Inst., pp. 5-11, 21, n. 7 [distinguishing study by Hinrichs (here)].) “This impact is equivalent to an additional two months of schooling.” (Policy Brief, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments (Aug. 2011) Brookings Inst., Hamilton Project, p. 4.) “When translated into earnings, the average student who starts school later would make about $17,500 more over the course of her life.” (Ibid.; Jacob & Rockoff, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments, supra, Hamilton Project, Brookings Inst., pp. 6, 10 [accord].)
“Early school start times reduce performance among disadvantaged students by an amount equivalent to having a highly ineffective teacher. [¶] The earliest school start times are associated with annual reductions in student performance of roughly 0.1 standard deviations for disadvantaged students, equivalent to replacing an average teacher with a teacher at the sixteenth percentile in terms of effectiveness.” (Jacob & Rockoff, Organizing Schools to Improve Student Achievement: Start Times, Grade Configurations, and Teacher Assignments, supra, Hamilton Project, Brookings Inst., pp. 5, 7.)
Considering the second point, student welfare and potential, joining her Harvard colleagues in endorsing later start times (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, pp. 382-383), Professor of Sleep Medicine Susan Redline advises that 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. classes begin too early for adolescent students to obtain sufficient sleep and serve to interrupt REM sleep. (Powell, Bleary America needs some shut-eye: Forum points to schools, hospitals, factories as ripe for sleep reform (Mar. 8, 2012) Harvard Science.) “Because of a multitude of intrinsic and environmental factors, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to disturbed sleep, and are one of the most sleep deprived age groups in the country.” (Lund, Reider, Whiting, & Prichard, Sleep Patterns and Predictors of Disturbed Sleep in a Large Population of College Students (Feb. 2010) 46 J. Adolescent Health 2, p. 124.) “Sleep deprivation among adolescents appears to be, in some respects, the norm rather than the exception in contemporary society.” (Roberts, Roberts, & Duong, Sleepless in adolescence: Prospective data on sleep deprivation, health and functioning (2009) 32 J. Adolescence, p. 1055.) “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development.” (Bronson, Snooze or Lose (Oct. 7, 2007) N.Y. Magazine., web p. 2.)
CDC scientists report, “Delaying school start times is a demonstrated strategy to promote sufficient sleep among adolescents.” (Eaton, McKnight-Eily, Lowry, Croft, Presley-Cantrell, & Perry, Prevalence of Insufficient, Borderline, and Optimal Hours of Sleep Among High School Students – United States, 2007 (2010) 46 J. Adolescent Health, p. 401.) Citing the “deleterious impact of school times on our teenagers,” Janet Croft, Ph.D., a senior epidemiologist at the CDC, advises, “It can change lives to change school start times.” (Park, Falling Asleep in Class? Blame Biology (Dec. 15, 2008) CNN.) Adolescents require 9 or more hours of sleep per night (O’Malley & O’Malley, School Start Time and Its Impact on Learning and Behavior, publish. in, Sleep and Psychiatric Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Ivanenko edit., Informa Healthcare 2008) pp. 79-80), but their “rather fixed” sleep pattern is biologically delayed, running from about 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. (Later Start Times for High School Students (2002) Univ. Minn.) Professor emeritus of Sociology at Stanford University, Sanford Dornbusch, admonishes, “Adults, unaware of the sleep needs of adolescents, require them to start school earlier in the day than is required of younger children.” (Dornbusch, Sleep and Adolescence: A Social Psychologist’s Perspective, publish. in, Adolescent Sleep Patterns, Biological, Social, and Psychological Influences (Carskadon, edit., Cambridge Univ. Press 2002) p. 3.)
Mary Carskadon, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry & Human Behavior at Brown University School of Medicine, and Director of Chronobiology and Sleep Research at Bradley Hospital observed recently:
“School administrators would serve students and teachers better by moving the opening bell later. The weight of the evidence from decades of studies suggests that creating conditions to encourage student sleep would improve the students’ mood, energy, alertness, and academic performance. [¶] Schools are not solely responsible for the perfect storm of teen sleep, but they can make a huge difference by moving to a later start time. The result would be happier, healthier, more attentive, and better performing students in high school.” (Carskadon, For better student health, start school later (Sept. 5, 2012) Brown Univ., italics added; see also, Backgrounder: Later School Start Times (2011) Nat. Sleep Foundation.)
Among adolescents, “daily feelings of anxiety, depression, and fatigue are the most consistent psychological outcomes of obtaining less sleep at night.” (Fuligini & Hardway, Daily Variation in Adolescents’ Sleep, Activities, and Psychological Well-Being (2005) 16 J. Research on Adolescence 3, p. 371.) Adequate sleep is necessary for young people to regulate their emotions. (Dahl, The Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Adolescents: Links Between Sleep and Emotional Regulation (Jan. 1999) 80 Phi Delta Kappan 5, pp. 354-359; see also, Sleep Experts Concerned About St. Paul Start Time Change (Jun. 3, 2011) CBS.) In 2009, following a change in start time from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at St. George’s School, Dr. Judith Owens found the number of students reporting symptoms of depression declined (Owens, Belon, & Moss, Impact of Delaying School Start Time on Adolescent Sleep, Mood, and Behavior (Jul. 2010) 164 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Med. 7, p. 613), confirming outcomes from the Minnesota longitudinal studies (high school start times delayed from 7:20 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., Edina, from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., Minneapolis). (Wahlstrom, Changing Times: Findings From the First Longitudinal Study of Later High School Start Times (Dec. 2002) 86 Nat. Assn. Secondary School Principals Bull. 633, pp. 3, 13.) Given the relationship between depression and suicidal ideation in adolescents, Dr. Owens reported the finding was “particularly noteworthy.” (Owens, Belon, & Moss, Impact of Delaying School Start Time on Adolescent Sleep, Mood, and Behavior, supra, 164 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Med. 7, p. 613.)
Serious consideration of suicide is among the many health-risk behaviors associated with restricted school night sleep in a 2011 CDC study. (McKnight-Eily, Eaton, Lowry, Croft, Presley-Cantrell, & Perry, Relationships between hours of sleep and health-risk behaviors in US adolescent students (Aug. 5, 2011) Preventive Medicine, pp. 1-3; see also, O’Brien & Mindell, Sleep and Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescents (2005) 3 Behavioral Sleep Med. 3, pp. 113-133; Pasch, Laska, Lytle, & Moe, Adolescent Sleep, Risk Behaviors, and Depressive Symptoms: Are They Linked? (Mar. 2010) 34 Am. J. Health Behavior 2, pp. 237-248.) Lead author of the CDC study, Lela McKnight–Eily, Ph.D., commented, “Many adolescents are not getting the recommended hours of sleep they need on school nights. Insufficient sleep is associated with participation in a number of health–risk behaviors including substance use, physical fighting, and serious consideration of suicide attempt. Public health intervention is greatly needed, and the consideration of delayed school start times may hold promise as one effective step in a comprehensive approach to address this problem.” (Insufficient sleep among high school students associated with a variety of health-risk behaviors (Sept. 26, 2011) CDC Online Newsroom; see also, Clinkinbeard, Simi, Evans, & Anderson, Sleep and Delinquency: Does the Amount of Sleep Matter? (Jul. 2011) J. Youth & Adolescence, pp. 1-3 [associating diminished sleep with increased likelihood of juvenile criminal conduct].)
A study published in April 2011 associates early start times in Virginia Beach (7:25 a.m., except one school at 7:20 a.m.) with 41% higher crash rates among teen drivers than in adjacent Chesapeake where classes started at 8:40 a.m. or 8:45 a.m. (Vorona, Szklo-Coxe, Wu, Dubik, Zhao, & Ware, Dissimilar Teen Crash Rates in Two Neighboring Southeastern Virginia Cities with Different High School Start Times (Apr. 2011) 7 J. Clinical Sleep Med. 2, pp. 145-151.) In assessing the evidence, lead researcher Robert Vorona, M.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, offered an advisement to school administrators. “We believe that high schools should take a close look at having later start times to align with circadian rhythms in teens and to allow for longer sleep times. Too many teens in this country obtain insufficient sleep. A burgeoning literature suggests that this may lead to problematic consequences including mood disorders, academic difficulties and behavioral issues.” (Teen Automobile Crash Rates are Higher When School Starts Earlier (May 12, 2010) Am. Academy Sleep Med.)
A study published in April 2011 associates early start times in Virginia Beach (7:25 a.m., except one school at 7:20 a.m.) with 41% higher crash rates among teen drivers than in adjacent Chesapeake where classes started at 8:40 a.m. or 8:45 a.m. (Vorona, Szklo-Coxe, Wu, Dubik, Zhao, & Ware, Dissimilar Teen Crash Rates in Two Neighboring Southeastern Virginia Cities with Different High School Start Times (Apr. 2011) 7 J. Clinical Sleep Med. 2, pp. 145-151.) Lead researcher Robert Vorona, M.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, directed his remarks to school scheduling. “We believe that high schools should take a close look at having later start times to align with circadian rhythms in teens and to allow for longer sleep times. Too many teens in this country obtain insufficient sleep. A burgeoning literature suggests that this may lead to problematic consequences including mood disorders, academic difficulties and behavioral issues.” (Teen Automobile Crash Rates are Higher When School Starts Earlier (May 12, 2010) Am. Academy Sleep Med.)
In reviewing a 2008 Kentucky start time/crash rate study reaching a similar outcome (Danner & Phillips, Adolescent Sleep, School Start Times, and Teen Motor Vehicle Crashes (Dec. 2008) 4 J. Clinical Sleep Med. 6, pp. 533–535), John Cline, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, concluded, “Given the danger posed to young people from car accidents this is a strong reason in itself to change school start times.” (Cline, Do Later School Start Times Really Help High School Students? (Feb. 27, 2011) Psychology Today.) Recognizing that sleep is “essential for basic survival, occurring in every species of living creature that has ever been studied” (Dahl, The Consequences of Insufficient Sleep for Adolescents: Links Between Sleep and Emotional Regulation, supra, 80 Phi Delta Kappan 5, p. 355), later start time advocate Mandi Mader, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., puts the problem in perspective. ”Sleep deprivation, with such health consequences as depression, suicide, car crashes, and increased risk of other injuries, should be treated like hunger [deprivation]. We don’t expect children to learn without food and we shouldn’t expect them to learn without sleep.” (EOA Staff, Advocates Join Forces To Push For Common Sense School Start Times (Nov. 23, 2012) Eye On Annapolis.)
Please follow the evidence when determining the time of day school begins.