What the research tells us about four-day school weeks

For many communities across America, a school calendar with four-day weeks is unheard of. And in many of these communities, such a proposal would garner little support. Indeed, there isn’t a single urban district that has adopted the schedule, and it’s rare to find a suburban district that has made the switch. But the story is very different in parts of rural America, where four-day school weeks are well-liked and gaining traction.

The most recent survey, taken during the 2018–2019 school year, found that 650 districts, or about 1,600 schools, in 24 states had adopted a four-day schedule. That’s up significantly from two decades ago, and those numbers appear to be climbing. Communities backing the trend cite benefits for teacher recruitment and retention, cost savings, community support for the schedule, and more.

How is the schedule different from a typical five-day week?

Most districts that adopt a four-day week close on Fridays, though some opt to have Mondays off. The districts then redistribute the time from the day they are closed to the rest of the week, starting school earlier and ending school later than their five-day week counterparts. How much earlier they start and how much later they end varies, but on average they add about 50 minutes to each school day.

An extra 50 minutes in a day could equate to adding 10 minutes to five different classes. So, in theory, it’s not impossible that students could be receiving the same amount of seat time in five subjects (e.g., math, English, social studies, science, and an elective) on a four-day week.

But the differences between a four-day and five-day week are not as simple as a choice between four 50-minute classes per week in each subject versus five 40-minute classes. Students may benefit from non-core academic time at school each day, such as morning meetings, recess, passing time between classes, advisory periods, and lunch. And they’d get less of that in a four-day week since, overall, districts with four-day weeks have 31 fewer days of school than other schools: typically, they’re open 148 days a year, compared to 179.

Because they spend less time at school, students on a four-day week schedule have more free time outside of school. Students tend to spend their extra time on a variety of activities, but they also spend substantially more time on chores and work (for their family or at a job) over the course of a week than students at similar five-day week districts, according to research by the RAND Corporation.

Where and why do districts switch to four-day weeks?

Four-day weeks have generally been most popular in rural areas in states west of the Mississippi River. The approach is particularly growing in Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas. However, some policymakers are pushing back against the trend. In Oklahoma, for example, lawmakers have made it harder for districts to operate four-day weeks, establishing challenging accountability standards and requiring districts to apply for a calendar waiver.

About 90 percent of districts operating four-day weeks are located in rural areas. Leaders in those communities cite teacher recruitment and retention, cost savings, and community support among the reasons they’ve opted for the shortened week.

Childcare is often raised as a concern related to four-day weeks. However, families and school leaders at the school districts that have adopted the schedule have said that childcare is not an issue for the majority of the community. In some cases, this is because the school district is a major employer in the community, so many adults have the day off when schools are closed. In other cases, rural adults work from home in farming or ranching, and the extra day off school allows younger children to both be cared for and engage in those family responsibilities. It is also common to have multi-generational and extended family networks in the community who might help provide childcare support when needed.

What are the impacts?

The research is mixed on the impact of four-day weeks on student achievement, but most studies find small to medium negative impacts on achievement on average. These negative effects are roughly equivalent to a student being two to seven weeks behind where they would have been if they had stayed on a five-day week.

But local context and implementation matter a lot. Notably, in one recent multi-state study, researchers found that the negative impacts were concentrated among districts with the shortest school days on the four-day schedule. In particular, districts operating with fewer than 30 hours per week drove the negative effects in the study, whereas there were no significant impacts of the schedule on student achievement at districts operating 32 hours or more per week.

The existing research also shares the impacts of the schedule on cost savings, student behavior, and attendance. Cost savings, despite being a primary motivation for adopting the schedule in many districts, are only about two percent, on average. Some district leaders maintain that these small savings, equivalent to about $57,000 per district, are meaningful in their district. Others acknowledge that the schedule saves them less than they originally anticipated, but they continued to use a four-day week schedule for other reasons.

Proponents of the schedule claim that it improves school climate and student behavior, but the evidence is mixed. In support of the claim, research shows the four-day week significantly reduces high school bullying and fighting incident rates and increases the amount of sleep elementary students get. However, surveys of four-day week and five-day week students and families found no differences in their ratings of school climate.

Another argument for four-day school weeks is that they improve attendance, allowing students to travel for appointments and extracurricular activities that can be far away on their day off. But the evidence provides little support for that argument, as studies have not found any effect of four-day weeks on attendance rates.

Despite this mixed evidence on the schedule’s effects, communities’ satisfaction with the schedule is clear. Survey data shows 84 percent of families and 95 percent of students in four-day week districts would continue to choose a four-day week over a five-day week. Families noted a range of reasons they preferred the four-day week, with some of the most common reasons being increased time with family, reduced stress, and flexibility for appointments.

More research is needed to investigate the impacts of the schedule on other important outcomes, such as teacher recruitment and retention, efficiency of class time, rates of food insecurity, student safety and mental health, and family income and resources.

Policies to consider

For any community thinking about switching to or continuing on a four-day week, it’s important to consider the benefits and drawbacks of the schedule. The local context and proposed implementation of the schedule are critical components of the decision.

For districts using the schedule, there are policies education leaders can adopt to minimize any negative impacts. Among the most important is ensuring schools maintain or increase the total time spent on academic learning.

School and system leaders should closely audit instructional minutes to see how the change is impacting teaching and learning. For example, students and teachers may have 50-minute class blocks on the four-day schedule instead of 40-minute blocks. School leaders should collaborate with and support educators to restructure curriculum and lesson plans as needed to ensure students get the instruction they need and educators have the time to teach all the required material.

Another important policy decision is what, if any, services the district provides on the day off. Additional time at home is of particular concern for students whose lives outside of school are unsafe or for those lacking access to resources, such as food or a caring adult. School leaders considering a four-day week need to be particularly thoughtful about how to design the schedule and provide wraparound supports (e.g., backpack lunch programs, enrichment opportunities on the day off) for these students and families.

Monitoring and evaluating the policy

The use of data is essential for monitoring and evaluating this kind of complex change. Schools need to closely monitor students’ academic growth, teacher recruitment and retention, and other metrics, before and after the transition, and compare their own progress to that of similar five-day week schools.

Pursuing research partnerships may be an especially promising strategy for districts interested in evaluation support. Our research team is actively recruiting district partners to study the implementation and impacts of four-day school weeks. Consider collaborating with us. Or, if your school community has moved to a four-day week, we’d love to hear how it’s going. We are @NWEAPolicy on Twitter.

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