Mandates to local school districts from on high — whether that’s Sacramento or Washington, D.C. — don’t always work out for the best for students and parents.
They can backfire — see No Child Left Behind standards from the George W. Bush era — or inspire some extremely creative accounting on the part of districts in order to reach those goals.
That is currently the case in the efforts of school districts to increase their high school graduation rate under goals set by President Barack Obama. There’s nothing wrong with shooting for more graduates. But as we have noted in this space, districts are cutting standards in order to increase their graduation rate, including calling a D a passing grade and allowing students to take watered-down online classes to make up for classes they failed the first time.
Even those of us not inclined to busybody interference in the decisions made by local California school boards can agree that the best state and federal standards are often ones that deal with students’ physical and mental health. On the vaccination front, for instance, it makes no sense for the common good if individual districts have their own policies allowing parents to opt out — that increases the medical dangers to everyone.
A new bill requiring later secondary school start times in California by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, might seem at first blush to be a case of Sacramento overreach. But Portantino — who during his time in the Assembly made creative bills on health care a hallmark of his terms, including one establishing an umbilical blood cord collection program key to future medical advances — comes at this from a strictly biological position.
Research unequivocally shows what every parent (and teen) knows — adolescents are different from the rest of us. They have a different brain chemistry than do younger children and adults, and they require more sleep. You might say that in that case they should simply go to bed earlier in order to rise at 5:30 a.m. to make it to class by 7:30 a.m. or so. But they don’t — in middle and high school they have more homework, more social life, more extracurricular activities, and they go to bed late and get up early.
The movement to start secondary classes no earlier than 8:30 a.m. is making inroads across the country, with Seattle the largest district to implement it district-wide. In a meeting with our editorial board, Portantino said the positive results are clear in such districts: “Grades and test scores go up, and car accidents and drug use go down. So do sports injuries — down 68 percent.”
Portantino knows that some parents argue that the later start time could play havoc with their own commuting needs if they must be at work early — and that frustrates him. “All the arguments against this sensible approach are adult-based,” he says. “And the start times have to be statewide, as otherwise it creates issues with kids in different schools with different extracurricular activities.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement advising school districts to begin middle and high school classes no later than 8:30 a.m. The medically based arguments for Senate Bill 328 in the name of better adolescent health are hard to refute, and we think it deserves support in the Legislature.
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