Science based decision making in education: sleep and school start times in #DavisCA and beyond

In September of last year I wrote a brief post about science and decision making in schools: Nice letter to the editor in the Davis Enterprise taking on school district’s anti-science tone.  I include it below since it is very relevant to this post.

I assume many people heard about the recently released report from the American Academy of Pediatrics where they recommended high school classes start later in the morning than most do right now.  See for example: Let Them Sleep: AAP Recommends Delaying Start Times of Middle and High Schools to Combat Teen Sleep Deprivation.  And this report was covered in all sorts of newsy and bloggy places.   See for example, Amy Graff’s article in SFGate and Deborah Netburn in the LA Times.  Overall, the argument presented by the AAP makes sense and seems supported by scientific fundings.  And they go through a lot of scientific reasons for their recommendations.

Alas, Winfred Roberson, superintendant of the Davis, CA schools (also known as the DJUSD) told the Davis Enterprise that the schools here would not be making any changes in response to this report:

“While DJUSD won’t be modifying start times, our role as an educational institution can be to find ways to support our students by giving them the tools that will help them to think through, make adjustments and prioritize their competing forces that may be cutting into the recommended sleep time,” Roberson said. “These are life skills we are helping to build that will help students to function even after graduation.”

And I had missed out on this quote, thankfully, but became aware of it when my wife showed me this letter by Steve Carlip in the Davis Enterprise today:  Don’t ignore the science Davis Enterprise.   I quote from it below:

The superintendent’s response, as reported in Tuesday’s Enterprise, was to simply ignore the science. Instead, he said, the schools will help student “build life skills” to “prioritize their competing forces that may be cutting into the recommended sleep time.” 

Really? The high school is going to teach students to control their circadian rhythms? It’s going to give them the “life skills” to regulate the timing of their bodies’ secretion of melatonin? It will educate them to overcome biological sleep-wake phase delay by sheer force of will?

He completely nailed it here.  I hope Winfred Roberson and the Davis School district rethink their attitude towards scientific studies.

Today I found out that the Davis School Board may actually be listening to the science.  For the next school board meeting which is February 5 there is an agenda item on this topic c. Update on the Formation of a DJUSD Sleep Study Committee. The description of the agenda item is as follows:

In August 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a scientific sleep study report that recommended an 8:30 am start time for schools, which would allow secondary students more time to sleep.  The report generated community discussions and concerns since Davis secondary schools start before 8:30 am.
In response, the superintendent initiated the formation of a Sleep Study Committee (made up of students, teachers, counselors, parent/community members and administrators) to examine the benefits and logistical challenges of an earlier school start.    

This update is a report of the formation of the Sleep Study Committee and their charge.  For reiteration, at this time, staff is not offering recommendations about a modified start time.  Staff will wait to review the work of the Sleep Study Committee before offering formal recommendations to the Board. 

So I started digging around for more on the topic and found some things worth reading  But the most interesting thing I found was that there has been a discussion about this exact issue in the county where I grew up: Montgomery County Maryland.  Some of the articles about this area listed below:

It seems to me that Davis, CA really needs to consider this as a possibility.  It could help students in many ways and seems to be a relatively easy (though not free of course) way to improve the lives and learning of students in our town.  I am thrilled that the Board is bringing the topic up again.  Any examples out there of places that have shifted start times based on the AAP recommendation would be great (and what happened …). 

See some responses on Twitter:


Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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