It was during my first-day-of-school attempts to rouse a seventh-grader, as I was setting off firecrackers under her box spring, that I began to fantasize about the exchange that might have led Education Secretary Arne Duncan to say last week that, to achieve more, teens should start school later.
President Barack Obama: "Arne, I am up to my graying temples in tigers here. I'm trying to wind down a stale, boring war in Afghanistan, kick up a fresh, exciting one in Syria and deal with that pasty-faced Bond villain, Putin. On top of it all, I have to keep deflecting blame for a job market that is only lowering unemployment by moving people from the 'seeking work' category to the 'Oh, @#$% it' column. I can't take one more thing."
Duncan: "How can I help, sir?"
Obama: "You can make it so adolescents go to school later. It's either that or I'm going to have to get the Marine Band to start playing Sasha and Malia out of bed in the morning. Michelle is riding me like a tired pony, Arne. Yesterday she told me, 'You can either wake them yourself or start school later, Mr. Leader of the Free World, because I am done.' But I can't just make my own girls' school start late, because then all the Republicans in Congress will be like, "Sure, his kids get to sleep in while millions of hardworking, taxpaying American parents dodge alarm clocks hurled by angsty juveniles at 6 a.m."
Duncan: "I'll do what I can."
If this seems ominous (starting school later, not my overactive imagination), it shouldn't. Study after study has confirmed that starting school later for tweens and teens is a good idea. They need as much sleep, about nine hours per night, as younger children. But because of several factors in their biological cycles, including the timing of melatonin secretion, they have a hard time falling asleep before 10 or 11 p.m. This keeps parents, who have as hard a time staying awake as the kids have nodding off, from watching new episodes of "Breaking Bad" in peace. And it keeps the kids from performing above the level of "apathetic zombie" when they have to get up at 6 to get to school on time.
That human beings experience changes in their sleep patterns is not news. Anyone who's watched in bafflement as their grandparents began eating dinner at 3 p.m., going to bed at 8, and waking up all chipper and angry because the newspaper won't arrive for another three hours gets the idea.
The world of public policy is maddening. It's not just that we can't solve our thorny dilemmas because the solutions are so difficult and the people and research so seemingly divided. It's that we can't solve our easy dilemmas, even when the studies all say the same thing and practically everyone agrees on what should be done. Nowhere is this more regularly true than in the operation of our schools. Other than those who have a direct personal or financial interest in maintaining the status quo, how many people really believe we should still:
Give kids a 12-week summer vacation that allows them to forget all they learned?
Make students carry books that weigh 157 pounds and cost the district $157 (if new) or claim New York is the largest of the 22 states (if used). Printed textbooks? Really?
Let kids, particularly educationally challenged kids, leave school before 5 p.m.? They need to start a little later, and stay a lot later.
So Arne Duncan is right. Everyone knows he is right. Every study says so.
It would be enough to make me crawl under my box spring and weep, if I didn't fear my daughter planned to set it afire in retaliation for the other morning.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.