How come nothing changes?

by Vince Durnan, director

A reflection on the culture of change in schools
Experience teaches us change is hard. And change in education seems especially hard. How come? Here’s a journey into a case in point, a pretty self-evident move despite its obvious benefits remains elusive.
 
"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."
–Lao Tsu
 
Consider the later school day start for high schoolers. There’s a virtual cottage industry to be found in advocacy for that notion, with something approaching consensus among people whose area of specialty is adolescent development. For the non-initiated, the argument goes like this: teenagers’ sleep cycles, their circadian rhythms, shift as they reach young adulthood such that they naturally enter prime sleeping time later at night and, if they are to get the nine or so hours their growing selves need, they should not be expected to be awake until correspondingly later in the morning.
 
In practical terms, sleep-deprived kids and people pay a price in terms of mood, behavior, cognitive function, and academic performance issues, as proven with a change in one Massachusetts school system. Google anything on that topic and choose whichever authoritative voice you like. If you really want to worry, imagine a moody, decision-impaired, lower-functioning, sleepy teenage driver sharing the road with you, in the early morning or really any time. What that kid needs, as the argument goes, is to be tucked in around 11 p.m., thereafter to spring happily out of bed at 8 a.m. or so. I’d be shocked if you haven’t heard that pitch and nodded, at least internally, in assent.
 
Instead, American high schools, in overwhelming numbers, ask that school age demographic to start classes at 7 a.m., or even earlier, and then finish school in many instances well before 3 p.m. Doesn’t that correspondingly contribute to bad teenage choices in the late afternoon unscheduled time? Doesn’t also that guarantee less than optimum results during the available school day? What are we thinking?
 
Well, let’s consider some competing realities. At a fundamental level, it starts with buses. Big school districts face tremendous pressure to allocate transportation resources such that little children are not waiting in the dark for their ride to school—better that older, more self-sufficient kids should. Add to that the need to get everyone home before dark, and you get the cycles on bus transport that dictate the U.S. school day. Safety and savings occupy the top priority spots, and as a side benefit the early high school finish lets kids get to jobs that often provide important household income. Don’t ask me to throw the first stone at that system, given those material, fiscal, and social realities.
 
How does USN fit into this discussion? We’re not bus-reliant. Can’t we blaze a trail in light of the compelling evidence in favor of a change? In our case, some other pressures appear. As a K-12 school, we understand the convenience of everyone starting together just before 8 a.m. so families with children of different ages only need to make one trip here in the morning. And our families have jobs to get to in pursuit of tuition resources, among other expenses. We also sponsor an ever expanding set of program options, whether athletic or artistic or intellectual or service learning. The later we start in the afternoon, the later our eager participants will finally return home. And then there’s the question of daylight—for outdoor activity, the clock already runs out before we can get everything in.
 
Our strong preference over time has been any change would be pretty Pareto Optimal, which in economic speak means at least some significant number of us are better off without others of us being or feeling worse off. As a result, hitting the bullseye of change is pretty challenging, and decade by decade the status quo prevails. Another way to see it is that when asked, we know what we like because we like what we know. And that’s what we choose to do, in the temple of the familiar.
 
The challenge, it strikes me, is to consider change benefiting all as a real possibility and reject a zero-sum mindset. In this case, if staggered start times based on developmental considerations offer a convincing chance for improvement, let’s agree to frame and reframe until the rest of the dimensions still work for all involved. It calls for deeper trust in one another and in processes to provide full consideration of every constituency. You won’t be surprised as we enter an active phase of imagining the best possible future for USN, change is very much on my mind, but the right kind of change, not flavor of the month stuff. Let’s imagine the optimum and work from there. We may like that better than where we might otherwise be heading.
 
Stay tuned,
 
P.S. See you at Music Night. Tix available here.
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    • Director Vince Durnan with Jack Wellons IV '24 during USN's Harry Potter-themed Homecoming.

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