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January 17, 2019

The Four-Day School Week: Shaving Costs with a Shorter Schedule

MHT Partners  | Education Investment Bank

Did someone say, “three-day weekend?” Recent years have seen an increasing number of U.S. school districts electing to truncate the traditional five-day school week by one day in the wake of tightened budgets and decreased funding. While considered one of the more creative solutions available to alleviate cost constraints within the education system, educators are left wondering how a shorter week may impact student outcomes.

As a quick primer, the majority of four-day school weeks operate Monday through Thursday, with some districts opting for a Tuesday through Friday schedule. In most cases, school days are lengthened to 7.5 hours in order to maintain the instructional equivalency of a five-day school week, with the expectation that a shorter week will offer expense savings. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, schools operating on a four-day school week can expect to realize cost savings related to transportation, food, energy, and staff, for an average savings range from only 0.4% to 2.5% of their annual budgets. While these savings may seem small, they have proven to be substantial enough for underfunded schools that are hard pressed to cut costs. One school district in Florida reported that switching to a four-day school week produced a 0.7% savings, resulting in a budget reduction of $7.0 million. The report stated that those dollars could be used to retain up to 70 teaching positions.

Many districts have also reported other benefits of a shorter school week, which include additional time for family activities. The four-day week is particularly popular among stay-at-home parents, who enjoy spending extra time with their children or schedule appointments that might otherwise necessitate an absence from school. Many teachers have also reportedly used the additional time for preparing and planning instructional content and grading schoolwork ahead of the weekend. On a related note, many schools have also seen both student and teacher attendance improve after making the switch. However, critics of the four-day week have pointed out that the change can be tough on full-time working parents and/or lower income families, who may not be able to afford the time or costs related to fifth-day childcare. Some families have also cited concerns with students who rely on public schools for half of their meals.

As one of the primary criticisms of the four-day school week, it is important to consider the potentially undesirable impact on student learning and achievement. While any large-scale studies have yet to be conducted, some state-specific research has been published – the results are fairly mixed, and few studies are recent. One investigation performed by MIT researchers revealed that elementary students in Colorado improved their math and reading scores significantly after making the switch to a four-day school week, while a similar study performed by researchers at the University of Arkansas found no meaningful differences in academic performance. Another study in Oregon showed a temporary decline in testing scores among students on a four-day schedule. Additionally, no large-scale research exists that focuses on how longer days affect younger students’ attention spans, or how students with learning disabilities fare with a condensed schedule.

The truth is that the four-day school week was premised on the idea that a shorter week would ease the burden of underfunding rather than as a vision for the systematic upheaval of the academic system. Little is known about the effects of a four-day school week on student outcomes, although continued commitment to research and the pursuit of innovation may reveal its potential for altering the traditional educational system for the better. For now, its future has yet to be determined.

Sources:
National Conference of State Legislators: “Four Day School Week Overview”
Harvard Graduate School of Education: “A Four-Day School Week?”
University of Arkansas: “The Four-Day School Week: Impact on Student Academic Performance”

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