Two simple ideas to improve education

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan tweeted on Aug. 19 about the benefits of later school start times for teens in high schools, he created an unexpected buzz.

But where have you been, Mr. Duncan?

The research overwhelmingly shows that later start times for high school students unquestionably improves academic achievement and mental outlook while decreasing behavioral problems and delinquency.

Duncan’s tweet (he tweeted this?) – “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later” – is a no-brainer that researchers and child advocates have been trumpeting for more than a decade.

And we’re not talking a measly 15 minutes. A 9 a.m. start time would vastly – vastly – improve what everyone in education gives lip service to saying is important.

Will they do it? Not a chance.

Many of us who have fought this battle for years are armed with facts and research and irrefutable evidence that implementing later start times is an easy policy change that would have a significant impact on the health and well-being of teens – and would translate into an outcome educators all say they crave: higher test scores and improved student achievement.

But alas, as Duncan said in an interview with guest host Susan Page on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show on Sept. 4, “So often [in] education, we design school systems that work for adults and not for kids. I think this is just another example of that.”

No amount of proven scientific data seems to convince reluctant school officials and elected board members to change the way the system is currently set up.

The issue has come before the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education several times in past years, with little effect.

In 2010, for example, Canyon Crest Academy moved its start time from 8:15 a.m. to 8 a.m. and never even considered moving in the other direction. Accommodating athletics was the over-riding consideration.

In fact, one SDUHSD board member even objected to discussing the matter at a board meeting when approval was sought for the change and wanted the earlier start time approved under the Consent calendar without debate.

Start times at Torrey Pines High School were once an ungodly 7:15 a.m. It was only after years of petitions and pleas from determined parents coalescing together to implore the board to start school later that trustees finally compromised and moved start times to 7:45 a.m. The parents wanted 8:15 a.m. but settled after a long-fought effort that left them drained of energy and battle-fatigued.

Duncan said the issue must be decided at the local level, and would not be a federal mandate, but he encouraged districts to strike out on their own and set a precedent for something this basic.

“The vast majority of districts are just sort of conforming to the status quo rather than being, you know, more creative and being innovative,” he said in the interview.

The top two comments in the Duncan interview posted on-line said it best:

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