Montgomery County teachers overwhelmingly oppose all options for starting public high school later to give students more time to sleep, according to a new union survey. The results put the county’s teachers in stark contrast with parents and health experts who have been lobbying for the change.
Nearly half of the district’s 12,000 teachers responded to the survey, and 63 percent said they favor not changing high school bell times, the only one of seven options the school board is considering that drew a majority. More than 50 percent said they were opposed to shifting start times 20 minutes later, and more than 60 percent opposed moving bell times 35 minutes later, according to the survey results.
Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the study shows that teachers are “pretty overwhelmingly” against changing school start times.
“What’s striking is the message was the same from high school, middle school and elementary teachers,” Israel said. “They were pretty strong in believing that it will not have any impact on academic achievement.”
He said teachers who were surveyed also raised concerns about lower-income families — with students who have to work after-school jobs or take care of younger siblings — and whether they’d be able to do those activities if the school day is shifted. Teachers also raised concerns, he said, about how late extracurricular activities would go if school start times were changed.
Changing bell times has been a long-simmering issue in Montgomery, as parents and activists have advocated pushing the start of the high school day later to give teens more sleep. Citing studies on teenage sleep patterns and evidence from other school districts, parents have argued that letting students, especially high schoolers, sleep later would improve their academic performance and health.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr initially backed a proposal that would have changed the start times but later withdrew his support. The school board then asked school administrators to come up with low-cost options, and the board will consider those options at a hearing Tuesday. All of those are said to cost less than $10 million a year. Starr has recommended that the board consider only no-cost options, preferring one that would delay the start of all school days by 20 minutes.
The concept has been gaining traction nationwide. Fairfax County, the largest jurisdiction in Virginia and one of the largest in the country, last year approved later bell times for next fall and has factored the change into next year’s budget, which gained School Board approval this week.
Parents in Montgomery have made impassioned pleas for later high school start times, sharing personal stories of teenagers who barely function in the pre-dawn darkness, fall asleep during early classes and fight chronic exhaustion.
Advocates for changing the start times pushed back immediately when they learned of the results of the teacher survey. Michael Rubinstein, of the Montgomery chapter of the organization Start School Later, said the survey is a reflection that teachers just “don’t want to do it.”
“They’re saying, ‘We don’t like change,’ ” Rubinstein said. He added that the research is “very strong” that changing school start times improves academic achievement. He also cited other benefits to health, reducing accidents and closing the achievement gap.
The survey of Montgomery teachers and other educational staff, which the union released ahead of the board meeting Tuesday, indicated that teachers do not agree that teens would benefit from later starts.
Just 32 percent said that later start times would lead to better academic results for high schoolers. Sixty-five percent said that moving bell times would cause problems for students who participate in after-school activities.
On the question of whether high school students’ health would improve, 42 percent of teachers said yes, while 41 percent said it would make no difference.
Rubinstein criticized the survey results, saying that teachers do not have any data to back up how many children in the area are working or taking care of siblings and how changing bell times would affect them.
“The bottom line is, teachers don’t want to do it, and they’re making excuses,” Rubinstein said. “They’re concerned about what impact this has on them and not on the students.”
In written comments that accompanied the survey, educators cited reasons for their opposition, including “my home schedule,” “I’d rather leave school at the earliest time possible to avoid commuting traffic” and “starting later just means kids will stay up later at night.”
Israel said that 5,800 teachers responded to the survey, many of them saying that a change could negatively affect education in the county.
“Our view is this is a distraction from teaching and learning,” Israel said. “Teachers are saying they don’t think this will improve academic achievement. As educators, our focus is on teaching and learning.”