Are School Start Times Lunacy?

As Maryland launches its public school students into another year of awakening at the crack of dawn, a question worthy of conversation is whether these daily start times are in kids’ (or society’s) best interests.

Consider the opinion of Matthew Walker,  Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.  Okay, sure, Berkeley, a location sure to cause eyerolls from some.  But in his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Walker writes:

“More than 80 percent of public high schools in the United States begin before 8:15 a.m.  Almost 50 percent of those start before 7:20 a.m.  School buses for a 7:20 a.m. start time usually begin picking up kids at around 5:45 a.m.  As a result, some children and teenagers must wake up at 5:30 a.m., 5:15 a.m., or even earlier, and do so five days out of every seven, for years on end.  This is lunacy.”

It seems it’s all about those circadian rhythms, which are undeniably as much a part of us as breathing.  And kids are biologically-disposed late risers.  So what happens when they head off to school with all the latest tech gadgets, but not enough sleep?  According to Walker:

“Controlled sleep laboratory studies…show that children with longer total sleep times develop superior IQ, with brighter children having consistently slept forty to fifty minutes more than those who went on to develop a lower IQ.”

And it’s not just about SAT scores.  Without sufficient REM sleep (the really good stuff that conjures up dreams) Walker says:

“REM sleep is what stands between rationality and insanity. Describe (symptoms of moodiness, anxiety, and paranoia) to a psychiatrist without informing them of (a child’s) REM-sleep deprivation context, and the clinician will give clear diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.”

Not to mention:

“When the Mahtomedi School District of Minnesota pushed their school start time from 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., there was a 60 percent reduction in traffic accidents in drivers sixteen to eighteen years of age. Teton County in Wyoming enacted an even more dramatic change in school start time, shifting from a 7:35 a.m. bell to a far more biologically reasonable one of 8:55 a.m. The result was astonishing—a 70 percent reduction in traffic accidents in sixteen- to eighteen-year-old drivers.”

Now, Walker’s website is, and as a “sleep scientist,” his book may at times seem to lean toward theories that all the world’s ills could be cured by a good night’s sleep (which just happens to be his specialty), but his claims, if nothing else, are worth considering as you drag your kids from bed before sun-up to get them to school.