Two simple ideas to improve education

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:

“The research is already crystal clear, and has been since the 1990s, that running high schools from about 7 a.m. till about 2 p.m. is harming teen health and learning. The problem is not the research. It’s lack of political will to change, and without some support and guidelines from educational leaders, that will isn’t going to change on a local level. This is a public health issue and can’t be treated as a negotiable budget item.”

And this one:

“I think the sleep issue is particularly problematic in the U.S. because we have placed such a high priority on after-school sports. Years ago when I was an exchange student in Germany, sports were primarily non-school based. Perhaps other countries don’t have as big of a problem with teenager sleep issues in part because other countries don’t overvalue sports in the educational system.”

Duncan didn’t get into what’s really driving the early start times, besides bus schedules. But the main culprit is athletics.

Over-valuing sports in the education system is a nice way of saying sports reign supreme. When rules are made to conform to the needs of athletic departments, you know what’s running the show.

Until a majority of parents demand that start times be changed so teens can sleep later – and until school board members find the courage to stand up to adults in the system and the sports-obsessed and act on behalf of what’s best for students – this simple approach that would improve student health and increase academic success will never be implemented.

What’s sad is the missed opportunity for SDUHSD schools which could be recognized and applauded for leading this effort. As powerhouse schools known county- and state-wide, these schools could be leaders in changing the system and making a major impact, while sending a clear message that teaching and learning is what schools are for.

As Duncan said about his tweet, “I was trying to challenge the status quo and to be provocative and say, if so much evidence is pretty, you know, is fairly overwhelming that this is a better thing, a better way for teens to learn, why, as education leaders, why aren’t we paying attention to that and at least, you know, looking at this very, very seriously?”

Why indeed.

Opting out of standardized testing

In another piece of national news, a report by Associated Press on Sept. 8 stated that more and more parents are refusing to allow their kids to take standardized tests.

The opt-out movement is gaining traction nation-wide for a variety of reasons. Many parents believe, according to the report, that standardized testing results in time-consuming test preparation that narrows the curriculum and dictates what’s taught in the classroom. This, they say, leaves little time for important subjects that aren’t included on standardized tests or for teaching critical thinking methods that aren’t easily measurable.

They also say the tests cause undue stress on young children, take up valuable hours in school, are used unfairly to evaluate teachers, and have contributed to the growing influence of outside corporate profit centers.

Protest movements bordering on civil disobedience in New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Oregon – including students marching in zombie costumes – have gained national attention.

It’s not just parents against the tests. Also opposed are some teachers, like Peggy Robertson of Centennial, Colorado, who said in the story that she expects the movement to grow.

“You can feel the momentum,” she said. “I think we’re headed for a full-on revolt next year.”

Duncan may not like the opt-out movement as much as he supports later start times. But both issues have in common a potential grass-roots effort by education activists who, through strength in numbers, have the ability to pressure educators to enact sensible education policy. The power of the engaged and mobilized should never be under-estimated.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at