Earlier elementary school start times predict less sleep for students but have little to no effect on their educational outcomes, according to new research published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. For school districts that must stagger start times for transportation and other logistical reasons, the findings provide evidence that early start times are less detrimental to elementary school students than to students in high school or middle school.
Traditionally, research on school start times has focused on high schools and middle schools, where the evidence supports later start times based on biological changes in adolescent sleep.
“We found earlier start times for elementary schoolers do not have the same negative effects as they do for middle and high schoolers,” says co-author Sarah Crittenden Fuller, PhD, research associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) at the University of North Carolina, in a release. “For elementary students, earlier start times predicted only a slight increase in absences and a small increase in math scores.”
“As a number of districts and, notably, the state of California, adjust school start times to allow high schools and middle schools to start later, our findings offer reassurance that moving elementary schools to earlier start times is unlikely to harm the educational outcomes of the youngest students,” says co-author Kevin C. Bastian, director of EPIC and research associate professor in the Department of Public Policy, in a release.
One of the studies by Bastian and Fuller was broad in scope, covering all public, non-charter elementary schools in North Carolina from 2011–12 through 2016–17, and one focused on an urban district in North Carolina that changed its elementary and high school start times in 2016–17. In each study, the authors examined the relationship between start times and student absences and suspensions as well as achievement on standardized exams.
Bastian and Fuller note that there is some evidence in their study and other research that school start times have the largest impacts on traditionally disadvantaged groups and that those groups are most likely to be affected by the disruption of changing start times.
“To the extent that districts can change start times to bring middle and high school start times in line with the science on adolescent sleep, this may help close achievement gaps,” Fuller says. “In addition, traditionally disadvantaged groups may benefit most from supports that schools and districts can provide to address disruptions in childcare and transportation created by a change in start times.”
Should the emergence of a new COVID variant or another virus force schools to return to remote learning, the researchers noted that school leaders should carefully consider the best start times rather than simply defaulting to those established for in-person instruction.