What a 4-day school week might mean for your district

Key points:

West of the Mississippi, a new approach to seat time is catching on. Roughly 1,000 different schools have transitioned to a four-day school week (researchers abbreviate this as a 4dsw), which amounts to a sixfold increase since 2000. Twenty-five percent of schools in Missouri have implemented a 4dsw in their districts.

Schools in the American West and Southwest have led the way in trying this trend. There are a handful of reasons for this, but many deal with the geography of the school district. Rural schools often see different challenges than their urban counterparts. Transportation, extracurriculars, and family obligations can keep students out of school for half a day for something as quick as an orthodontist appointment once travel time is factored in.

Consolidating required seat time into four days does lengthen the four days spent in school, but the fifth day—which often is a Friday or a Monday, resulting in a three-day weekend—is completely free of school obligations. Some schools still elect to provide a meal for multiple reasons, including funding preservation and food insecurity. Teachers who travel to the district save on commute costs and consider the fifth day a perk of employment. One district switched and saw four times2 as many teacher applications.

Not every school site in a district has to adhere to the 4dsw—one prime example includes pre-kindergarten classes, which meet on different schedules than their older peers. But evidence is mounting that a 4dsw could help attract and retain teachers, manage scheduling for rural districts, and impact students’ sleep. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of a 4dsw.

The cons of 4dsw

One of the bigger drawbacks to upending any traditional school schedule is the question of where kids go. Like it or not, schools provide an invaluable service of safe childcare for working parents (remote learning debacles during the early 2020s show us exactly how valuable school spaces can be, and how detrimental it is to a community to lose them). Longer days to cover instructional time requirements may feel grueling to students.

Critics of the 4dsw point out that the hopes outweigh the outcomes when switching up the school week schedule. For example, there’s often a hope that fewer days per week will save money, improve attendance, and ensure kids get more much-needed sleep. In most cases, there was little to no improvement (aside from some specific budget savings) after all. Big kids especially do not get more sleep, and attendance rates stayed the same—plus, kids had more free time to engage in risky behaviors.

On top of all this, test scores were affected. Kids in districts who attend four days a week experienced a “statistically significant but relatively small” slide in growth compared to peers attending five days per week. The effect of this small lag in growth meant that year over year, kids were growing much slower than their peers who attended school five days a week.

 The pros of 4dsw

As mentioned, a huge pro of the 4dsw is improving the experience of teachers and staff. While it’s true the best way to retain teachers is to pay them more, many times in the rural districts that benefit from 4dsw increasing salaries is simply not possible. The 4dsw becomes a perk that draws high-quality applicants who are even willing to travel to the district.

Another pro is a double-edged sword: free time for kids. Plenty of kids will use that time to work, rest, spend time with family, or learn skills like hunting or farming outside of school. While it’s true big kids did not gain any sleep, elementary students did get more sleep on a 4dsw schedule, which is great for child development.

Contrary to the expectation of families scrambling for childcare on the fifth day, families reported high satisfaction with 4dsw, or at least a similar level of stress for families with small children. Schools have even implemented child care families can pay out of pocket for if needed.

Finally, the elephant in the room and the number-one reason districts mentioned for choosing a 4dsw is the budget. Saving money depended a lot on the district, which comes as no surprise. The highest possible estimates using theory with national finance data show the potential to save a maximum of 5.4 percent in the budget. In reality, schools saved up to 3 percent of their overall budget, which could be of great significance for certain districts. Specific budget items held the potential to save more, including a per-student savings of 7 percent in operations, 11 percent in transportation, and 12 percent in food service.

The questions about 4dsw

After seeing the pros and cons of a 4dsw, district leaders are left with several questions they must explore to make a healthy decision. Are instructional minutes the measure to trust? After all, research out of Oregon showed that similar outcomes were seen for students attending four fewer hours; is it just a matter of finding the sweet spot of instructional time?

Are test scores the measure of success, or is it family satisfaction and engagement? Does it matter if the data show rural students’ test scores are not as dramatically affected as urban peers’ scores? And above all, is the perception of success worth saving cold hard cash?

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