Four-day school weeks: Longer weekends, but less learning?

Would you support a four-day school week as a teacher or parent?

In Georgia, Chattooga County adopted a four-day week in 2010. Students are off Mondays and have extended days the rest of the week. Whether it’s hurt or helped the district has been debated at recent school board meetings.

The local paper reported on a meeting where a resident implored the board to return to five days, arguing the shorter week has hurt academic performance.

The Summerville News reported Superintendent Jimmy Lenderman gave a 28-minute rebuttal, saying: "Our four-day schedule provides our children more instructional time than a five-day schedule and it saves you approximately $750,000 a year plus other numerous benefits...Yes, our test scores are all lower than what we want them to be. But it's not a reflection of a four-day week."

Nationwide, an estimated 200 districts have adopted four-day weeks, typically in response to financial pressures. Most are rural districts in mountain states with high transportation costs. The model started in rural Colorado and Oregon, expanding to Idaho, Utah and Montana.

This week a metro Denver district approved a four-day week, citing the cost-savings but also touting the shorter week as a teacher recruitment tool.

School District 27J, which includes suburbs of Denver, posted a primer on the benefits of the Tuesday-Friday schedule that will impact 18,000 students starting in August.

Among the benefits listed:

Creates a clean, concise and consistent schedule.

Gives teachers and staff more time to prepare.

Encourages quality teachers to come and stay.

Allows reallocation of funds to the district's core mission.

Elementary schools in the district will go from 7:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Middle and high schools will go from 8:30 a.m. to 4:32 p.m. Only one of five charter schools in the district chose to align with the four-day schedule. The district will provide childcare on Mondays at a cost of $30 per child.

A four-day week is often presented as a way to boost attendance since parents no longer have to pull kids out for doctor’s or orthodontist’s appointments.

Education Northwest offers a good summation of the research, which is not extensive:

There's a paucity of research on the four-day school week, although a few studies have been published recently. Many of these examine Colorado schools—over a third of districts there are on the four-day schedule—and their findings vary. Three separate studies comparing schools in Colorado on the four-day schedule to those on the five-day schedule, found somewhat differing results: one found four-day students had some academic gains, one saw no difference between four- and five-day schedules, and the third found that five-day schedules had slightly better(although not statistically significant) academic results in some areas.

Most of the researchers caution that because of the inconclusive results, decisions to change schedules should not be based on test scores but on other stakeholder concerns.

Savings vary greatly district to district as well due to differing operating costs, transportation costs, and a host of other unique considerations. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) examined financial data from six school districts that made the switch and found that they only achieved .4 to 2.5 percent savings, probably because each district still used the school building on the fifth day of the week for extracurricular activities or staff development. One school district superintendent interviewed by ECS said that even though the savings were small, it was enough to justify the shorter schedule.

A 2017 analysis by the Brookings Institute and a companion study that looked at rural Idaho districts expressed concerns with the trend. Among them:

Few administrators or teachers said their districts provided any teacher training or planning templates before moving to the four-day week. Teachers were left to invent or discover the changes they made in use of in-class time and student work assignments both in class and on the fifth day.

Of rural Idaho, the researchers wrote:

However, the long-term consequences for rural students' education are unknown, and the stakes are high. Even before the introduction of the four-day week, rural students in Idaho were more likely than rural students nationally to graduate from high school, but ranked below students in 46 states as to the proportion who entered college. From this perspective, an initiative that stabilizes but does not raise student readiness could, in the long run, make Idaho's rural communities less viable.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington Bothell and a co-author of the Brookings piece and the companion paper, discussed the inconclusive findings thus far on the academic impact of a four-day week. Asked if he had any final concerns about the shortened week, Hill said:

Even if it doesn't seem to do much harm, it's kind of a step in the wrong direction in that rural areas need to do a lot better for getting their kids prepared for college and work. So, the status quo's not good news. The other thing that I mentioned in the paper was that some localities looked at that and said, "If we can do the same thing in four days, what could we do for five days if we worked harder?"

This is something that's happening, nobody's really evaluating it, nobody's asking what should be the minimum required if somebody's going to do it. The states are just letting it happen, and it's unfortunately going to be very hard to reverse because it's one of those adult-benefit things that you can't roll back.