For many public school students, going to school feels like a job much like their parents’, having to get up and go five days a week on a prescribed timetable. There’s a trend emerging in the U.S., however, toward cutting the school week to four days in an effort to reduce costs and attract teachers to school districts that adopt the shorter schedule.
Approximately five hundred sixty school districts in twenty-five states have adopted the four-day week. Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma, and Oregon are leading the trend; their school districts comprise over half of the U.S. total.
The number of school districts that have already adopted a shorter school week sounds large but the student populations of those districts are most often small. The new model has targeted rural areas, where simply travelling to school is an effort and a significant cost if school transportation is provided.
Each state has established its own requirement for the annual minimum number of instructional days for its public schools with the most common at one hundred eighty. Some states require a bit fewer but only a few require more. (1) How states choose to implement school schedules is up to their discretion. It’s due to this flexibility that some districts are able to implement fewer days actually spent in school; as long as the minimum number of instructional days is fulfilled (most states defining this as six hours), districts are within the parameters set.
There are pros and cons to having fewer in-school days with research supporting both sides of the issue.
Impact to School Spending
As an example, the newest Colorado school district to adopt a four-day school week anticipates a savings of $1M a year, $700,000 of which would be spent on school transportation for a fifth day of school. The rest of the savings is expected to come from a lesser requirement to pay for substitute teachers. (2) Other savings can come from one less day of food service, energy use, janitorial services, school administration, and in-school student support. For a district with a small student population, that’s a significant amount of money. The extra resources can be spent toward teacher’s salaries and supplies for the actual education of the students.
In reality, implementing a shorter school week doesn’t necessarily result in a big cost saving percentage-wise. Because the number of instructional days doesn’t change to accommodate fewer calendar days in the classroom, teachers must still work the same number of total hours condensed into fewer days. In this way, they retain the salary and benefits of a full school year. The Education Commission of the States estimates that the maximum proportion of savings a school district can expect by moving to a four-day school week is 5.43%. In some districts, that percentage is much lower. Depending on the size of the school district, however, even a small proportion of the education budget can account for several millions of dollars in savings realized by a shorter school week. (3)
Impact to Students
A four-day school week isn’t new. In fact, some areas of the country have been employing this model since 1936, when the Great Depression put pressure on every aspect of society. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, other jurisdictions adopted the model in an effort to save energy and reduce facility operating costs. Before making any drastic decisions on whether to shorten the school week, it’s crucial to consider the potential impact to students’ education.
A University of Arkansas study found the differences in academic performance of students going to the classroom four versus five days a week were insignificant. (4) Other and noticeable impacts on students and their communities have been found in districts employing the four-day week:
- improved student attendance (5)
- an increase in property crime by students on their off day (6)
- a longer school day can be difficult for some students to remain engaged and open to learning
- extra-curricular activities (e.g., sports and music) are a greater challenge to schedule and maintain (7)
- for some students, food they eat at school may be their primary sustenance; cutting one school day may impact their health and well-being in this context (8)
- more time during the school day for student academic support (9)
- high school students can work at a job on their off day from school
You can see it’s a mixed bag.
Impact to Teachers
Attracting qualified and skilled teachers is a challenge for public schools everywhere in the U.S. Many teachers are in favor of switching to a four-day school week, with studies showing improved morale and higher academic quality resulting from longer days spent in the classroom. (10) Furthermore, some districts have reported more cohesive professional development practices facilitated by the increased number of non-instructional days available for teachers.
Impact to Parents
For some parents, a shortened school week is a boon; for others, it is a formidable challenge.
Parents who stay at home or have flexible schedules can organize appointments and errands on their children’s off day during the week. This means less time taken off from instruction in order to attend to other life necessities for the students and being able to spend more time with their kids for the parents. Additionally, it opens the door for enhanced or additional educational opportunities in subjects not covered in school or tutoring in areas where children experience difficulties.
Working parents who cannot adjust their schedules to align with a four-day school week can face a nightmare trying to find good quality day care for young children—a particular challenge for those with low income. (11)
Transition to a Four-day School Week
Some districts’ school schedules hold classroom instruction Mondays through Thursdays and others Tuesdays through Fridays. The hours each day can vary as long as the total at the end of the academic year adds up to at least the minimum number of instructional days established by the particular state. Each day in school is extended for one to one and a half hours.
School administrators have found through experience that for the model to be successful, it’s essential to canvass everyone involved before making the decision to shorten the school week. Items to be considered before mandating such a drastic change:
- Functionality – each district must understand all the impacts to a shortened school week and factor in the needs of the extended community
- Feedback – eliciting opinions and hearing concerns of teachers, parents, community and business leaders, and support staff are critical for success—before and after implementation of a new model
- Faculty Development – focus on optimizing the extra non-instructional days for teachers’ professional development to improve the learning experience of the extended school days, with additional attention to career and post-secondary school preparation
- Focused Instruction – re-assessment of the standard method of classroom instruction can lead to more effective instructional practices, processes, and delivery (12)
There’s much more to the public education system than consideration of the budget. Every community is different and in-depth analysis must be engaged before changing the structure of the school week. Most school districts that have moved to a four-day week have found generally positive outcomes after initial transition. This may be the new preferred public school model of the twenty-first century.