Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on equity, edtech innovation, immersive learning, and the science of reading. This year’s 7th most-read story focuses on the possibility of four-day school weeks.
Four-day weeks are becoming more common in school districts, particularly in rural areas of the U.S. Many districts are finding students and families like the shorter school weeks. In fact, in a survey of schools with four-day week policies, 85 percent of parents and 95 percent of students said they would choose to remain on the schedule rather than switch back to a five-day week. While these shorter weeks are popular with stakeholders, might there be unintended consequences of four-day school weeks? Are there certain ways to implement the schedule that lead to better outcomes for students?
Most of what is known about these questions has come from research conducted in the last five years. My colleagues and I have studied the four-day week using quantitative and qualitative data from state departments of education, school districts, and the NWEA MAP Growth research database. These projects and other recent research on four-day weeks have shed some light on questions about the implementation and outcomes of four-day school weeks. The research analyzes qualitative and quantitative data to compare students’ experiences and outcomes on four-day and five-day school weeks. We find that there are both benefits and drawbacks to the shorter school week, and these tradeoffs can vary based on the characteristics of the school district and how they implement the four-day week in practice.
Benefits: What Supporters of the Four-Day School Week Are Saying
Supporters of four-day school weeks argue that the schedule change can result in district cost savings, better student attendance, and improved teacher recruitment and retention. However, the research to date doesn’t offer strong support for these arguments. Districts with four-day school weeks experience only a modest, ~2% reduction in spending and are not seeing changes in their attendance rates on average. Superintendents and principals report that they think the four-day week is helping them to recruit and retain teachers, but the current research does not provide evidence to support this claim.
Another benefit of the four-day school week is that parents, students, and educators like the schedule. Students reported enjoying having more free time, time to work, and time with family. Most teachers viewed the four-day school week as a positive change, saying it reduced the stress of their job or critically enabled them to supplement their income. A common claim across four-day school week district members is that the schedule boosted morale. In support of that claim, a study of Oklahoma high school disciplinary incident rates shows that the four-day school week significantly reduced rates of bullying and fighting. However, survey data find no differences in students’ or families’ perceptions of school climate across similar four-day and five-day week districts.
Impacts on Student Achievement: Drawbacks and Factors to Consider
Despite district stakeholders’ claims that students were learning just as much, or even slightly more, on the four-day week schedule, the research generally suggests otherwise. Although student test scores may be holding steady or increasing in a four-day week district, we need to consider how students’ scores are improving relative to similar students on a five-day week schedule. If the four-day week students would have improved more if they had stayed on a five-day week, the four-day week would be negatively impacting their test scores. Indeed, studies consistently estimate small to medium negative effects of four-day school weeks on student achievement over time relative to five-day weeks. However, these negative effects are not the same for all districts. The research indicates that there are at least two factors that can make a difference when it comes to the schedule’s impact on student achievement: (1) instructional time and (2) whether the district is located in a rural area.
Four-day week districts with higher amounts of instructional time are more likely to have smaller negative effects or no effects of the schedule on achievement. When switching from a five-day week to a four-day week, districts typically opt to have Monday or Friday “off” and extend the length of the other four school days each week. According to a study of four-day weeks in Oregon, having at least eight hours of school per day on a four-day week, relative to the average seven-hour day in five-day week districts, prevented the negative impacts of the schedule.
Rural districts, relative to districts located in towns or suburbs, also experience smaller negative effects or no effects of the four-day week on student achievement. The research cannot yet speak to why the schedule has less negative impacts in rural areas, but possible reasons include: more instructional time, outsized positive effects on teacher recruitment and retention, and students missing less class time for traveling to athletics and other interscholastic competitions.
Key Takeaways: Recommendations for Educators and Districts Based on the Research
Given these mixed findings, communities are likely to make different choices about the four-day school week depending on their goals and the local context. Below are three key takeaways from the research to keep in mind.
- In conversations about adopting four-day school weeks, we need to consider that the research offers only weak support for some of the current arguments for adopting four-day school weeks (saving money, reducing student absences, and attracting and retaining teachers).
- The overwhelming popularity of the four-day school week with stakeholders and the benefits they perceive from the schedule need to be considered in policy discussions.
- District leaders must consider the possible negative consequences of four-day weeks on student achievement, particularly if the change will substantially reduce instructional time. Data show that while student achievement in four-day school week districts has generally been trending upward over time, the gains were less than those of similar districts with five-day weeks.
When determining if a four-day school week is right for your district, consider the local context, stakeholders’ goals and priorities for the district, and how your implementation will bolster positive effects of the schedule and minimize or prevent negative effects. The calculus involved in weighing the tradeoffs of the schedule will depend on the anticipated size of each tradeoff and the priorities in each district. For academic recovery efforts, it is essential that districts committed to or planning to adopt four-day weeks monitor their students’ academic progress and seek ways to increase instructional time on the schedule. While there are both benefits and drawbacks to four-day weeks, considering each district’s context and priorities is critical for guiding conversations about adopting four-day school weeks.
Additional Resources for Educators:
What if every teacher had a work-from-home day?
For school leaders, routine decisions aren’t so routine
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