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Kids Who Sleep Later Do Better In School

2012 July 26
by Eric Horowitz

The ideological battle over our education system has transformed the banal adage of prioritizing the needs of students into a politics-infused idea dripping with anti-union sentiment. This is a shame, because there are many archaic and less-controversial aspects of our education system which carelessly disregard the needs of students. For example, evidence is building that we harm kids by making them wake up unreasonably early.

This paper uses data on all middle school students in Wake County, NC from 1999-2006 to identify the causal effect of daily start times on academic performance. Using variation in start times within schools over time, the effect is a two percentile point gain in math test scores – roughly fourteen percent of the black-white test score gap. I find similar results for reading scores and using variation in start times across schools. The effect is stronger for students in the lower end of the distribution of test scores. I find evidence supporting increased sleep as a mechanism through which start times affect test scores. Later start times compare favorably on cost grounds to other education interventions which result in similar test score gains.

The argument for starting the school day so early is that it allows parents to see their kids off. But the result is that some kids are too tired to learn, while others end up being left alone for a few hours once school ends. It’s arguably more important that parents be there in the morning so they can ensure their kids actually go to school, but given the downsides of this arrangement it seems odd that society isn’t trying harder to create a better system.

Believe it or not, there are reasons to not have every school run by the same bureaucracy that have nothing to do with lazy teachers or thieving businessman, and this is one of them. Ideally, at some point in the future there will be a real system of school choice, and this will allow parents to maximize the utility derived from their child’s sleep and schedule compatibility rather than be forced to follow the limited options offered by the local school system.

It’s also worth noting that the study is another instance of the lowest achievers making the biggest progress when the status quo changes. I made this point the other day, but sometimes the biggest reason kids struggle is not because they’re dumb or lazy, but because for whatever reason the design of the school day isn’t working for them. The result is that big improvements from low-achievers is something we should come to expect when a school undergoes real change.
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Edwards, F. (2012). Early to Rise? The Effect of Daily Start Times on Academic Performance Economics of Education Review DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2012.07.006

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