The Hidden Side of Four-Day School Week: Surprising Outcomes and Impact

The shift to four-day school weeks has stirred intrigue and debate. As the educational landscape undergoes transformation, it is vital to delve into the hidden facets of these schedules and understand their unexpected impacts.
Secretary Miguel Cardona in a public statement
Courtesy: Secretary Miguel Cardona
By | 6 min read

In recent years, an increasing number of schools have undertaken a bold experiment in the realm of education – the adoption of a four-day school week.

At first glance, this policy shift seems promising, with schools citing reasons as compelling incentives.

Yet, as delve deeper into this educational innovation, a more complex and nuanced picture begins to emerge. It is essential to explore the concealed side—the unanticipated consequences, potential challenges, and the impact on various stakeholders. 

The Evolution of Four-Day School Weeks in the United States

The adoption of a four-day school week has experienced significant growth and geographic dispersion over the past two decades, reshaping the educational landscape across the United States.

In 1999, only 257 schools in 108 school districts operated on a four-day school week. By 2019, this number had surged to 1,607 schools in 662 school districts. This expansion can be attributed, in part, to policy changes at the state level, which allowed waivers of the traditional 175-180 days of instruction requirement in favor of a minimum yearly instructional hours mandate.

States such as Missouri, Montana, and Oklahoma were at the forefront of this movement, witnessing immediate adoption by school districts following policy alterations in 2011, 2007, and 2009, respectively.

Moreover, the adoption of the four-day school week has become increasingly widespread, with schools in 24 states across the U.S. implementing this schedule during the 2018-2019 school year.

The growth was particularly notable in states like Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and South Dakota, each boasting over 125 four-day school week schools. However, it’s essential to note that this trend is not uniform across states, with variations in school district characteristics and reasons for adoption.

Solving the Teacher Shortage Puzzle: Innovative School Week Option

The shortage of qualified teachers is a growing concern in many regions across the United States. There are approximately 36,500 teacher vacancies, with around 163,000 positions currently filled by underqualified educators.

This shortage not only affects the quality of education students receive but also has long-term implications for their academic success and future prospects.

The four-day school week is being considered as a potential solution to address this teacher shortage, especially in rural areas where recruiting and retaining qualified teachers has proven to be a significant challenge.

Secretary Miguel Cardona visited a school
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Education

Tim Bartram, the superintendent of the Hull-Daisetta independent school district, noted, “We were struggling with getting teachers. We don’t really have the financial capabilities and the pay scale to compete with the larger districts.” 

One of the key ways in which the four-day school week can help mitigate the teacher shortage is by providing educators with a more manageable work schedule.

Teachers often experience burnout due to the demands of a traditional five-day school week, and this can lead to them leaving the profession or seeking employment in more lucrative school districts.

The condensed schedule of a four-day school week can offer a more attractive work-life balance and opportunities for greater job satisfaction, which can incentivize teachers to stay in their roles and even entice retirees to return to the classroom.

Furthermore, the four-day school week can be a draw for teachers from neighboring five-day school week districts, as they may be enticed by the prospect of a three-day weekend and reduced work-related stress. 

While the four-day school week offers promise in addressing teacher shortages, it’s essential to acknowledge that it may not be a permanent solution. The long-term effectiveness of this policy depends on its uniqueness in a given area, and neighboring districts may also adopt similar strategies.

Educational Flexibility and Adaptability: Examining the Realities of Shortened School Schedules

The academic impact of the four-day school week remains a subject of ongoing research and debate, primarily due to the relatively recent adoption of this scheduling approach.

Jon S Turner of Missouri State University emphasized that assessing the learning impacts cannot be based on just a snapshot of one or two years, particularly given the disruptive influence of the pandemic on educational environments.

Turner pointed out, “We’ve had huge growth here in the last four years of the number of districts on the four-day week, but we’ve had a pandemic in the middle.”

Nationally, some researchers have identified potential short-term academic benefits associated with the four-day school week.

One possible explanation is that teachers have more time to collaborate, attend professional development workshops, and better prepare their lessons. However, other studies have found instances of learning loss following the three-day weekend, although the exact implications remain uncertain.

For instance, a Rand study noted that student achievement in four-day districts “did not grow as fast” as in similar five-day districts.

Furthermore, a multi-state analysis conducted by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform suggested “significant negative effects” on academics, with more pronounced consequences for girls and students in non-rural schools. However, the researchers emphasized that the impact of a four-day week might vary significantly across districts.

Turner cautioned against making broad generalizations about the four-day school week, given the diversity of educational requirements among states and the varying ways in which each district implements the schedule.

He highlighted the potential benefits of using the fifth day to support learning, including focused interventions for struggling students, internships, career shadowing, community service, cultural exploration activities, and dual enrollment in college courses.

As he noted, “There are opportunities here that may not be there in a five-day week, and it is a way to think outside the box.”

One exemplar of the four-day week’s adaptability is AUL Denver, an alternative public charter school catering to students aged 14-21. Here, the four-day week is a crucial component of the school’s trauma-informed approach.

Many of the students at AUL Denver face unique challenges; they are parents, have recently been released from juvenile incarceration, or are experiencing homelessness, all while working toward their high school diploma.

Secretary Miguel Cardona in a welcome line of students
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Education

Carlee Taga, a science and health teacher at AUL Denver, highlighted the importance of flexibility offered by the four-day week, especially for students who are the primary earners for their families.

She stated, “A lot of our students are the breadwinners for their family.” With an extra day in the week, these students can work more and save money that would otherwise be spent on childcare for their children.

The four-day week, in her words, respects students for where they are at and meets them exactly where they are, making education more accessible and supportive for these unique student populations.

The Fiscal Effects of Adopting 4-Day School Weeks in Districts

The impact of a 4-day school week on school finance is a critical consideration for educational policymakers and government officials responsible for allocating resources to public education.

Research on the relationship between school finance and student achievement has shown a positive association between educational resources and academic outcomes, especially in low-income districts.

While the magnitude of this effect may vary, it is generally accepted that increased educational resources correlate with improved student performance.

In the context of the 4-day school week, recent research by Thompson in 2019 has highlighted its potential to reduce operating expenditures per pupil by 3.1% on average compared to traditional 5-day school districts.

This reduction in spending affects various areas, including transportation (7.0% reduction), food services (6.8% reduction), general administration (4.7% reduction), student services (4.5% reduction), and operations and maintenance (4.5% reduction).

Even when employing more restrictive control groups, Thompson’s analysis consistently demonstrates cost savings in each expenditure category.

Before Thompson’s work, Griffith (2011) conducted research on the financial implications of transitioning to a 4-day school week. His study revealed that districts, on average, saved between 0.4% and 2.5% of their budgets, with some districts achieving savings of up to 5.43%.

The cost savings were most significant in categories such as operations and maintenance, school administration, student support, transportation, and food services. However, these categories only accounted for around 29% of a district’s budget.

The bulk of a district’s resources, approximately 65%, was allocated to instructional costs (e.g., teachers’ salaries and benefits), which were minimally affected by the change in the school schedule.

For districts that maintained building operations on the fifth day or extended maintenance staff hours during the week, cost savings primarily stemmed from reduced student transportation and food service costs.

In some cases, this amounted to a potential savings of up to 1.6% of a district’s total budget. While this percentage may appear modest, it can have a meaningful impact on the finances of small, rural school districts.

In a state like Oklahoma, where many districts have adopted 4-day weeks, these savings can contribute to financial stability and sustainability, particularly for districts with limited budgets.

The Impact on Students and Parental Concerns

However, the shift to a four-day school week has stirred a considerable debate regarding its impact on students and parents.

Critics argue that this policy change may have adverse effects on students, reducing their classroom time and potentially complicating matters related to childcare and nutrition. There are also concerns that it could contribute to a rise in juvenile delinquency. However, proponents of the four-day school week offer a different perspective.

Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, emphasized that, based on research findings, the reduction in instructional hours due to the shortened school week might lead to a decline in academic performance.

He pointed out, “What we’ve been finding in Oregon and nationally, and in other states as well, from other researchers, is it is generally reducing achievement for students across the grade spectrum, and what we see as driving that are these reductions in how many hours students are in school.”

Secretary Miguel Cardona checked out the quality of the education in a collage
Courtesy: U.S. Department of Education

Thompson suggested that school districts considering a transition to a four-day schedule should consider increasing instruction time through other means to match the amount of time students receive in a five-day schedule.

Chris Fiedler, the superintendent of 27J Schools, offered a contrasting perspective. He reported that despite only adding 40 minutes to their four-day school weeks, the district witnessed an increase in graduation rates.

Fiedler stated, “We’ve improved our graduation rates every year since we transitioned to a four-day week.” The district achieved a graduation rate of over 90% for the first time in 2022.

Childcare concerns are also a significant consideration for parents, especially in households where both parents are employed. To address this, 27J Schools offers a full day of childcare for families on the non-school day at a cost of approximately $35 per child, with approximately 350 to 400 students participating in the program.

The district also allows families who prefer a five-day school week to enroll their children in one of the district’s charter schools that have maintained this schedule.

For parents like Dani Jayne, who stays at home with her three children, the four-day school week has provided more family time and a less hectic schedule. She explained that the additional day off school has made their lives “less hectic” and allowed for more flexibility in their daily routines.

However, it’s important to note that while some school districts find success with the four-day school week, there isn’t yet “large-scale evidence” to support a national change.

Each district’s approach may differ, and unanswered questions remain regarding how to mitigate costs for students and families, ensure proper nutrition, supervision, and physical activity for students on their non-school day, and retain and recruit teachers effectively.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed skepticism about the benefits of a four-day school week, emphasizing that it’s not a guaranteed solution for the teacher shortage and could potentially reduce investments in education.

The National Education Association also stressed the need for ongoing collaboration with educators, families, and communities and consideration for various factors, including childcare and nutrition, when implementing this scheduling strategy.

Profound Drawbacks of the Four-Day School Week in Rural Areas

The adoption of a four-day school week in rural areas presents deep-seated drawbacks that extend to the very core of the educational experience.

Chief among these concerns is the significant reduction in learning time for students. With a day less in the classroom each week, students receive fewer hours of instruction over the academic year, potentially impeding their academic progress and readiness for future challenges.

To compensate for the lost day, schools often extend the length of the remaining four days, resulting in longer and potentially exhausting school hours, particularly for younger students.

This extended daily schedule can undermine the quality of instruction and the capacity for effective learning, casting doubt on the overall benefits of the reduced school week.

Furthermore, research has suggested a potential negative impact on student achievement, making it essential to scrutinize the consequences of this educational shift carefully. The four-day school week also has the potential to exacerbate educational inequality, particularly in rural areas, where disadvantaged students may struggle to access alternative learning opportunities on the fifth day.

Additionally, the prospect of teacher burnout and turnover looms large, with experienced educators potentially departing due to the challenges of longer school days, potentially destabilizing the educational environment.

These profound and intertwined drawbacks underscore the need for careful evaluation and consideration when contemplating the adoption of the four-day school week in rural communities.

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