Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

August 23, 2013

GUEST COLUMNIST: ‘Little Johnny’ returns to school

By DR. PHILLIP BALE
Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — Like most Americans I enjoy a good joke every now and then.  Some of the best involve “little Johnny” a modern day Huck Finn whose irascible nature coupled with more than a modicum of innate intelligence provides challenges aplenty for his classroom teachers.  Unfortunately, the implication is that, in spite of his talent, Johnny is an underperformer with his classwork and infinitely more interested in anything other than academic achievement.

It’s no secret that American schoolchildren are now considered laggards with respect to academic performance among children of the industrialized world.  The data supporting this notion are plentiful and, earlier this year, led Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education to charge that the state’s largest school district was engaged in an “academic holocaust”.

The reasons behind our lackluster performance are no doubt many and finding solutions will require a community of participants.  By themselves, educators have little chance of reversing the tide.  Parents and the larger community of citizens must improve their own literacy pertaining to the facts surrounding what ingredients promote learning and higher academic achievement.

While an excellent classroom teacher is considered by many to be the most important factor for student success, the home environment also plays a vital role.  Regularly having dinner together as a family has been associated with better school performance as has having 20 or more books in a home.  A major reason given for the inordinate academic success of South Korean children is the much greater parental participation accompanied by a commensurate level of higher expectations compared to Americans.

Americans should be disturbed by the findings of The Kaiser Family Foundation that the average American teenager spends 7 1/2 hours/day using entertainment media.  They should also take note that current brain research reveals that adolescents require 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep per day for optimal functioning while our adolescents are averaging 6 hours and 13 minutes of sleep/day.  If, as sleep researchers like to say, sleep is food for our brain and critical to learning, our kids are starving and even the best classroom teachers cannot overcome these types of “built in” obstacles.

It’s more than a bit ironic that “smart” phones now play a significant role in the dumbing down of America’s children.  When recently giving a talk about the importance of sleep to an auditorium full of high school students, I was only mildly surprised when, by show of hands, approximately 95 percent of students indicated that they frequently text friends at 11 p.m. or later on school nights, and that virtually all of them had TVs in their bedrooms.  I can only be thankful that those types of temptations were not available during my youth.

Of particular significance is the relatively new understanding that adolescent brains are physiologically different than everyone else’s.  From puberty until approximately age 24 brains undergo what is known as a “phase shift” with an approximately three hours delay in nighttime melatonin secretion.  In other words, adolescent brains are “wired” not to get sleepy until much later in the evening and to remain sleepy further into the morning than the rest of us.  Since short term memory is converted to long term memory during periods of deep sleep (REM sleep), the state of chronic sleep deprivation in today’s adolescents inhibits their ability to learn.  As James Maas, PhD, one of our nation’s foremost experts on sleep, is fond of saying, “sleep deprivation makes you stupid”.

And it is not just academics that suffer.  Less than adequate amounts of sleep is now unquestionably linked to a higher incidence of a myriad of health related problems, behavioral disorders, and automobile accidents.  Common knowledge among sleep researchers is a two-year study at the University of Kentucky in the late 1990s demonstrating a 16.5 percent reduction in teenage automobile accidents attributable to a 1 hour delay in school starting times. Similar studies in other parts of the country, including Minneapolis, have shown improved academic and athletic performance, fewer behavioral problems, and greater attendance and retention rates associated with delayed school starting times for adolescents.  Having previously served for 12 years on a local school board, I cringe at the thought of the required effort to bring about substantive change. However, the stakes relating to failure are enormous, and if future generations of Americans are to maintain our current standard of living, we must improve our own literacy concerning what matters and commence serious, adult-like conversations leading to actions now.

In their 2011 book, “That Used To Be Us,” Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum make a strong argument that over the last two decades America has slipped badly as a world leader in many categories including education.  They cite that too many American parents are concerned about the stress levels of their children as they try to balance today’s plethora of activities in addition to school work.  Friedman and Mandelbaum contend that a reprioritization of what is truly important might be in order, and that “real stress is what you’ll feel when you can’t understand the thick Chinese accent of your first boss out of college — in the only job you are offered.”

So as Johnny (and Susie) return to school this fall, let us not forget than an educated mind is our most precious resource.  In today’s global economy, academic achievement will be the primary determinant of success for us individually and as a nation.  And that’s no joke.

Dr. Phillip Bale is a Glasgow physician. He is a regent and chairman of the Academic Committee at Western Kentucky University. He is founder of the University of Louisville/Glasgow Family Medicine Residency and The Kentucky Center for Prevention of Heart Attack, Stroke, and Diabetes and a board member of The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.