Early Bird, Meet Worm

One high school in Toronto, Eastern Commerce, has embraced the experiment so often lusted-after by contemporary youth: a late start to allow students to sleep in.

The experiment, which began in the fall of 2009, is an acknowledgement by educators that the biological clocks of teenager leave them sluggish in the morning. The Canadian Pediatric Society reported in 2008 that high school students need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night and may struggle in school if they don’t get it.The Toronto District School Board is monitoring Eastern’s experience carefully, comparing marks, attendance and lateness before and after the project started. It is a small school, with only 450 students, 80 per cent of whom come from out-of-district, which can mean long commutes. Many are drawn by Eastern’s stellar basketball teams.Early indications are that there have been some positive changes.The school reports the Grade 11 math failure rate has dropped from 45 per cent to 17 per cent.

All good news – though, the sample is too small and the duration too short to declare a success beyond this institution.  And probably this is the sort of more flexible thinking that would benefit schools of any sort on a range of issues.  Many of our assumptions about schooling are untested – most of the things we do, including our start times, are merely historical accident.

But I wonder: while it is true that sleep helps teens, and it is true that teens don’t get enough sleep, is it a sustainable answer to merely start later in the day?  Won’t the teens who went to bed at 2:00 am now just go to bed at 3:00am?  While historical accident is not a good enough reason to persist with something that doesn’t work, the burden of proof typically resides on the side of change.  I’m not sure I’m convinced there is something substantial at work here, though given the cost of the experiment – nothing – I’d like to see this tested more widely.

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