With teachers reporting high levels of burnout in the wake of the pandemic, a four-day school week can be a major perk to attract and retain educators, particularly for districts that can’t afford to raise salaries.
In fact, administrators of districts that have gone this route said they have seen an increase in applicants, even from out-of-state teachers in one case.
“It emerged as a real competitive advantage, particularly for rural schools who were having difficulties in attracting talented teachers — or teachers at all,” said Andrea Phillips, a policy researcher at RAND Corp. who has studied the subject.
More than 1,600 schools across 24 states had a four-day school week by 2019, and the trend is growing. They are especially popular among smaller districts and west of the Mississippi River due to varying state instructional time policies and the generally higher-than-average per-pupil costs for smaller districts, Phillips said.
Superintendents in districts that have transitioned to four-day weeks say the vast majority of teachers, students, administrators and parents love the model, an assertion backed by research and surveys.
“You’re able to give students more opportunities in a customized learning setting,” said Tom Rice, a former principal of Gayville-Volin High School in Gayville, South Dakota, who recently became superintendent of Wolsey-Wessington School District, also in South Dakota. Both his old school and current district operate on a four-day school week.
Absenteeism and discipline referrals saw marked improvement at Gayville-Volin, Rice said. The same outcomes were seen in Bakersfield R-IV School District in Gainesville, Missouri, Superintendent Amy Britt said.
And in Brighton, Colorado's School District 27J, graduation rates — particularly among Latino students — have increased since a four-day school week began in 2018, Superintendent Chris Fiedler said.
What does it mean for the bottom line?
A four-day week can mean cost savings for districts, although not as large as might be expected.
The switch yielded a maximum savings of 5.4% in the average district’s total budget, with actual savings ranging from 0.4% to 2.5%, according to a 2011 study from the Education Commission of the States, the latest year for which data is available from the organization.
Savings accrue in transportation costs — mainly diesel fuel for buses — as well as in expenses for hourly salaries, school meals, and heating and cooling.
Colorado's 27J Schools saved $750,000 on fuel in the first year, less than 0.5% of its total budget, Fiedler said.
Bakersfield saved around 8%, or about $120,000, mostly in fuel. Still, “it’s definitely not the 20% that you would imagine,” Britt said.
But any savings, even small, can be reallocated to other important areas, such as teacher salaries or academic and social-emotional services for students, Phillips said.
How does it impact achievement?
Educators told K-12 Dive that achievement in their districts either stayed flat or showed some improvement. For example, in Crutcho Public Schools in Oklahoma City, average test scores moved closer to the proficiency score of 300 on the Oklahoma Performance Index, former superintendent James Branscum said.
“It doesn’t appear that the four-day school week on its own is all that bad. It’s the reduction of the time in school … that seems to be the driver of these achievement gaps."
Associate professor of economics at Oregon State University School of Public Policy
But a RAND Corp. study showed student achievement did not grow as fast in four-day school districts. After eight years, the difference in ELA and math growth between four-day and five-day districts was considered "meaningful" — and greater than the average gap that could be closed by most educational interventions, the study showed.
When dividing four-day school districts into low, middle and high levels of time spent in school, negative effects emerged in math and English language arts achievement for those with low time in school, according to a February 2022 study in Economics of Education Review.
“It doesn’t appear that the four-day school week on its own is all that bad. It’s the reduction of the time in school … that seems to be the driver of these achievement gaps,” said researcher Paul Thompson, associate professor of economics at Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy.
School administrators interviewed by K-12 Dive also pointed out the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to accurately compare year-over-year data.
What happens on the fifth day?
On average, districts with four-day weeks have longer days by about an hour, but students overall spend 85 hours less in the classroom over the course of a school year compared to those with five-day school weeks, according to research published in the journal Education Finance and Policy.
High schoolers often use the fifth day of a four-day school week for internships, community service or work, Britt and Fiedler said.
Some districts, like Wolsey-Wessington, provide additional instruction for those who need it on the fifth day.
Crutcho Public Schools requires students struggling in reading and math to receive in-school tutoring on the fifth day. The rest of the student body has to log onto the district’s virtual instruction system for at least two hours, school officials said.
The fifth day can also be an opportunity to provide additional mental health services to students, Crutcho Superintendent Melvin Perry said. The district’s middle school, for instance, offers Friday group therapy for middle-school girls who struggle with trauma.
“They feel more prepared for the week. That has had a huge impact on teaching and learning as far as the quality of the instruction.”
Superintendent at Bakersfield R-IV School District in Gainesville, Missouri
Another option in some districts is enrichment activities, like cooking classes, on the fifth day.
Districts vary on whether they require teachers to come to school on the fifth day.
In Crutcho, teachers are on Zoom for two hours on the fifth day to support students who need help. They devote the rest of the day to grading, staff meetings, professional development and parent-teacher conferences.
In Bakersfield, teachers come in once a month on the fifth day for professional development. The other weeks, they use their fifth day at home to grade, prepare lessons or do activities related to student clubs and sports, Britt said.
“They feel more prepared for the week,” she said. “That has had a huge impact on teaching and learning as far as the quality of the instruction.”
Thompson said more research is needed about what happens to students on their day off in terms of nutritional intake, physical activity and risky behaviors. Students at about 20% of schools can get meals on the fifth day, provided either by the district or through community organizations that fill the gap, Thompson said.
A 2018 study in Colorado showed about a 20% increase in juvenile criminal offenses, particularly property crimes, in areas with four-day school weeks.
Fiedler, however, said local law enforcement data doesn’t support that. Having Mondays off, rather than Fridays, might help stave off any potential inclination to get into trouble, he added.
What are the effects on families?
“We heard, by and large, really positive sentiment about the four-day school week,” Phillips said.
Families can get more time together, as well as time for things like doctor’s appointments and family trips, depending on their work and family schedule.
However, more research is needed about how the four-day school week might affect the most vulnerable families in particular, Phillips said.
For example, the schedule can be more difficult for working parents who need to arrange for child care or make sure older children stay safe when home alone.
A 2019 study estimated the four-day school week caused an 11% decrease in employment for married mothers with children ages 5-13.
On the fifth day, the burden of child care, meals and physical education shifts onto families, Thompson said.
Few school districts offer child care on the fifth day. One exception is 27J Schools, which has full-day child care on Mondays — the day there is no school — for $35 per day up to 5th grade. About 300 of the district's 6,000 students are enrolled in child care, Fiedler said.
Where is future research focused?
It remains to be seen whether four-day school weeks yield long-term benefits in terms of staff retention and satisfaction, as well as well-being of students, families and communities, researchers said.
More can be learned from districts that have hybrid models of shorter weeks, Phillips said. Some districts, for example, operate on five days for younger children and four days for high schoolers. Others have a five-day schedule most of the year and switch to four days after school testing.
“If you’re first to adopt, or an early adopter, it gives you an advantage,” Phillips said. “But it’s unclear if it stands the test of time.”