Sleeping In

Larry Cuban, with whom many of you are intimately familiar after having reviewed his book Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, also blogs regularly–and very well–on various issues in education and education reform. Some of you alluded to this in your book reviews, so I know you’ve been keeping up with his work. If you haven’t been, now’s a good time to start!

This morning I read a recent post of his about high school start times. My experience in high school would have fit well in the Owens book, as a counterpoint in the chapter “Not High School as You Remember It.” I graduated from high school in Virginia way back in 1992–before almost all of you were born. This, of course, was also before the standards movement came into full bloom (I was in high school when President Bush called the “Education Summit” in Charlottesville, my hometown, in 1989, an event that reverberated for at least a decade as it helped establish both Bush’s and President Clinton’s education policy preferences), and well before “No Child Left Behind.” I guess it was an alright school–AP courses were just starting to be offered (I took AP English, Chemistry, and Government, but we did not offer Advanced Placement courses in history and I wanted nothing to do with courses offered in math), we had a band and school orchestra, our football team never won anything, and we had our choice of several foreign languages to study–Spanish and French, of course, but also Russian, German, and maybe some I’ve forgotten. Most classrooms had no windows in them, which we all found odd, and the school had its share of architectural quirks. Two especially nice features were a pair of indoor/outdoor courtyards, one of which was actually reserved for student smokers. Imagine that: a student smoking courtyard in a high school! We also had a wall in the parking lot that students were encouraged to paint messages on. These ranged from the pedestrian (edgy drug-referenced quotes of Pink Floyd songs) to the political (these were the days of Exxon oil spills and Gulf Wars; we also, of course, had occasional unflattering references to school administrators designed to test the limits of free speech that quickly came down) to your everyday expressions of teenage lovelorn angst, highlighted by references to Shakespeare, C + C Music Factory, or Color Me Badd, depending on one’s taste. I remember one guy used to blast the Eagles song “Take it to the Limit” from his car stereo every afternoon in the parking lot. Yeah, it was high school.

We also had a daily schedule that would make today’s high school students jealous. It was a schedule that demonstrated a surprising amount of trust of students. Those courtyards, for example, could be visited at least twice during the day, and also at lunch: we had both morning and afternoon breaks of about 15 minutes (if I remember correctly) to do whatever we wanted to do. Lunch lasted almost an hour, and seniors were actually permitted to leave campus during lunch. The liberal nature of the schedule allowed students like me to take classes across town at the University of Virginia. As a senior I took both an English course called “American Gothic” and a history course on the Reformation at UVA in addition to anchoring the school’s morning news program, putting on plays in our black box theatre (not to be confused with the black box of classroom practice…), and attempting to continue a fledgling baseball career. 

I’m making it sound better than it was (high school is, well, high school after all), but maybe the most thoughtful thing our school did for us as students in those days was to give us the gift of time. When I first began teaching high school in 2000, we kept a much different schedule: school started at 7:10 sharp and ended at 2:10. In between we squeezed a six-period day with staggered lunch schedules that allowed students and faculty about 24 minutes to wolf down their victuals, including transportation time to and from the cafeteria. Back at my high school in Virginia, school started at 9:20. It didn’t end until around 4, but that two-hour shift in the schedule made all the difference. The late start made an “Early Morning” period possible; many of us took health and phys ed at that time to free up room in our schedule later in the day. And it still started a full hour after school typically starts today! Not only that, but for many of us it started with physical activity. (I’ll never forget Coach Elder admonishing us that “You can’t run if you don’t breathe!” and making us watch workout videos first thing in the morning.)

But that was Early Morning. Most of us didn’t start school until 9:20, and I have to think we were better off because of it. Today, my old high school starts first period at 8:20 am, but, to the credit of its school board, several proposals are being considered to start later–possibly as late as 9:45. Note, if you follow the link above, what may ultimately derail these efforts: it’s going to cost a lot more money, apparently, to ensure that buses run efficiently. This is, as Cuban also points out, were efficiency often trumps research findings and what would seem to most teenagers and their parents to be common sense. But as Cuban also points out, it might not take much for “activists” to use the politics of education to their advantage, especially when armed with evidence. The key is understanding how the politics work. Are earlier start times a panacea? Will they raise student achievement and close the achievement gap on their own? Of course not. But every effort we can make to ensure that students arrive at school alert and reasonably well rested would seem to be an effort worth making.

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