Do arbitrary clock conventions help determine the geographic distribution of educational attainment levels?

Maulik Jagnani, Poor Sleep: Sunset Time and Human Capital Production. Nov. 1 2018

This question is the premise for an analysis of the effect of the time of day the sun sets (and by extension rises) on academic achievement for India’s school population. According to the paper, India has set up a rare natural experiment in the real world. There is only one time zone in the country. The school day starts at the same time of day for all public schools. However, the time of sunset and sunrise can differ by as much as two hours from East to West.

Here’s what happens. Children in India have to go to school at a fixed time every morning. For children, especially those in lower socioeconomic groups, bedtime is often dictated by the setting of the sun. Those in the East go to bed earlier than the children in the West, so those children get more sleep.

School-age children exposed to later sunsets attain fewer years of education and are less likely to complete primary and middle school.

Maulik Jagnani, Poor Sleep: Sunset Time and Human Capital Production. Nov. 1 2018

The sleep deprivation caused by going to bed later, especially among the poor, is partly responsible for lower academic achievement.

Just in case you think, “That’s India. It’s a third-world country. That same effect can’t happen in the USA, can it?”

It can. In a study of high school students in Westchester, NY, researchers found the following:

The early March DST onset adversely affected sleep and vigilance in high school students resulting in increased daytime sleepiness.

Medina D, Ebben M, Milrad S, Atkinson B, Krieger AC. Adverse Effects of Daylight Saving Time on Adolescents’ Sleep and Vigilance. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015;11(8):879-84. Published 2015 Aug 15. doi:10.5664/jcsm.4938

The study found that students lost about half an hour of sleep per night on on weekdays. Half an hour’s not much. right?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an opinion on that.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes insufficient sleep in adolescents as an important public health issue that significantly affects the health and safety, as well as the academic success, of our nation’s middle and high school students.

Adolescent Sleep Working Group; Committee on Adolescence; Council on School Health. School start times for adolescents. Pediatrics. 2014 Sep;134(3):642-9. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1697.

Sleeping in class is certainly not a path to academic success.

Here’s another one. After Indiana switched to observing Daylight Saving Time, researchers compared SAT scores pre and post the change. Their findings:

…this study examined a particular high-profile cognitive outcome of a sometimes controversial government policy, daylight-saving time. Controlling for socioeconomic status by proxy, the principal finding was a surprisingly strong negative relationship between imposition of the time policy in a geographic area and SAT scores of local high school students. 

Gaski, John & Sagarin, Jeff. (2011). Detrimental Effects of Daylight-Saving Time on SAT Scores. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics. 4. 44-53. 10.1037/a0020118.

The sum of all this is that less sleep results in lower academic performance among students, particularly middle and high school students. Daylight Saving Time is an artificially induced sleep impeding policy. Often policy debates are about providing schools with more funding to improve academic achievement. What if we just gave them a little more time, instead?