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Zero Period Is a Bad Idea

What are the advantages and disadvantages of zero period?

Key points

  • In middle schools and high schools, zero period typically begins around an hour before first period, often at 7:00 a.m.
  • Teachers and parents tend to support zero period, partly because they think it's beneficial, but possibly because teachers are "morning" people.
  • Some students report that zero period reduces their sleep and increases caffeine dependence.

Many high schools, junior high schools, and middle schools across the country have zero-period classes that meet before the start of the regular school day. Zero period typically begins around an hour before first period, often at 7:00 a.m., but sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m. I even read about a class in a Seattle area high school beginning at 6:10 a.m. Classes offered during zero period usually fall into three categories:

  1. Elective extracurricular classes (e.g. music: art)
  2. Advanced academic subjects (e.g. IB History; Physics)
  3. Remedial classes.

Zero period classes are often oversubscribed as they are sometimes the only period that some classes are offered.

Why zero period classes exist

Evidence that many teens’ sleep is insufficient in duration and quality is strong, so why would schools have classes that early? One argument is that the mandatory curriculum has become so full that the only times available are before and after regular school hours.

So why are there more courses offered before school during zero period than in afternoons? One possibility is that many teens have afterschool jobs, so extending their school day would diminish their opportunity to work. But that argument is weak, in that the percentage of high school students who work has fallen drastically in the last 20 years, from 37% in 1980 to just 14% in 2010. And it is likely that some portion of those 14% working actually does their work on weekends.

Another category of afterschool activities is athletics. The percentage of high school students participating in athletics has risen from 36% in 1990 to 40% in 2010. The large percentage of teens participating in afternoon, school night, and weekend athletics creates a substantial impediment to pushing school start times later and ending the school day later. Sports are a huge priority in this country among children and families of all social classes. I sometimes like to assert that the U.S. has the indisputable number one education system in the world—for sports. Among all the reasons for resistance to later school start times, interference with sports activities is the biggest. So zero period remains and is no doubt growing in popularity.

Support of zero period among teachers and parents

One reason for the support of zero period among teachers and parents is related to ideas about the work ethic. I imagine many adults would argue that students don’t work hard enough and an extra morning hour is good for them. Another argument is that students need more academic preparation and an extra hour is beneficial no matter what time of day.

Another possibility, rarely considered, is that school professionals are probably overwhelmingly “morning people." Persons with an evening preference circadian type who considered teaching or other profession requiring an early start likely opted out in the career choice stage or when they were in their first teaching internship. Teachers have self-selected for morning jobs, and since they are awake and alert early in the morning, they assume that all teens are (or should be).

Many school administrators and teachers are strong advocates for zero period. Consider the following quote from a high school website:

"This year, HHS offered for the first time a zero period option for students (classes begin at 7:20 and end at 8:10). This allowed students to take 8 or 7½ credits for the year rather than the standard 7. It was an excellent option for students needing to catch up or wanting to get ahead. It also allowed students to take additional electives that they want or need to take before graduating. Every single teacher that voluntarily taught a zero period class asked to do so again. Also, a few more classes have been added. As you select courses for next year, keep in mind the option of taking a zero period course. A separate form for zero signup will be available during pre-registration."

There is no unanimity of opinion about zero period. A small number of school districts are having second thoughts. At a school district school in Albany, California there was a proposal earlier this year to eliminate zero period based largely on research showing benefits to children of later start times.

What teens think about zero period

What do teens themselves think about zero period? I know of no empirical research on the matter, but I was able to locate a few blog posts and school newspaper columns written by high school students.

One student wrote that one benefit was that parking spaces were more available early in the day. Another benefit was that she was able to leave school early. In her words, “The school day doesn’t seem so torturous when you only have to wait until noon to leave.” But consider what she saw as the downside:

“It was a never-ending cycle of not enough food but too much caffeine, finding myself in bad moods I could not explain, and eventually slacking off incredible amounts, (one of the early symptoms of senioritis). I only took a zero period class my junior year, but even so it didn’t take long to realize what a mistake it was. Within the first week, I was cursing the day I thought a zero period would be fine. My final message to students considering taking a zero period: If you are capable of functioning on very little sleep and would like to develop an unhealthy caffeine addiction, be my guest. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Here is another quote from a student at a different high school:

“I have to wake up at 4:30 in order to get to school on time. Many of the students who stayed in IB and took zero periods were adversely affected by the almost two hours less sleep they get. Students are falling asleep in their first and second-period classes. On the bright side, it’s easier for me to pull an all-nighter. I go to sleep around one or two anyway and only having to stay awake until five makes me more inclined to stay awake and finish my homework."