Commentary

New Mexico Schools Reap Benefits, Some Serendipitous, of Four-Day Week

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One major recommendation of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was to increase the number of days in the school year. Such a recommendation is based, I presume, on the assumption that an extended school year will allow more time for instruction and increase student learning. Perhaps students would benefit from a longer school year, but during the past decade, some school districts in New Mexico have been doing just the opposite--that is, decreasing the number of days in the school year--with surprising results.

Currently, 10 of New Mexico's 88 school districts have a four-day school week during all or part of the year. In these districts, school is in session an average of about 150 days a year, compared with the typical school year of 180 days. Yet data reported from these districts indicate that, in general, their students perform as well as or better than they did under the traditional five-day schedule.

The shorter schedule does not mean that these children are receiving less instruction. In fact, although the children attend school for fewer days, the evidence shows that they may be receiving as much or more actual instruction during the four-day week than they previously received.

New Mexico's experiment with four-day schooling began about 10 years ago. The small rural school district of Cimarron, located in the mountains of northeastern New Mexico, requested permission from the state department of education to experiment with a four-day week. The department granted permission for the alternative scheduling, with certain conditions.

First, it required that the length of the school day be extended so that the schedule would contain the equivalent of 180 days of class hours. Second, the department stipulated that the four-day week include only academic work. Activities such as clubs and athletic events were to be scheduled at the end of the instructional day or on the fifth day of the week.

Anyone familiar with the operation of a public school knows that a good deal of instructional time is lost during a typical school day, particularly in secondary schools, because students are out of class for nonacademic activities. The New Mexico four-day-week regulation prohibiting such interruptions actually increased the amount of instruction students received during the week. As a result, student-achievement levels for Cimarron students increased during the first two years the district operated under the four-day plan. Students in one-third of the other New Mexico districts that have since adopted the four-day schedule have also shown increases in average student-achievement levels. And in no case have achievement levels declined when a district switched to the four-day week.

As gratifying as these results may be, these districts did not switch to the four-day week to improve student performance. Almost all of them were facing financial difficulties. Declining enrollments and inflationary cost increases were jeopardizing the continued operations of many of these small districts, and the main reason they chose a four-day school week was to cut operating costs, primarily to reduce energy consumption by shutting down schools one day each week.

This has worked. Fuel and electricity usage has decreased by 10 to 25 percent when districts have switched to a four-day week. Additionally, many of these districts have shown reductions in transportation costs of between 10 and 25 percent.

The plan apparently enjoys broad community support as well. Another requirement placed on districts wishing to switch to a four-day schedule is evidence that the local community strongly supports the idea. Surveys conducted in the districts, both prior to and during the implementation of the four-day week, showed that more than 90 percent of the respondents--including students, teachers, and parents--favor the four-day schedule. Of this group, teachers are often the most outspoken advocates for the four-day week.

A 1981 evaluation report on the four-day school week in 12 rural Colorado school districts, published by Colorado State University's Office for Rural Education, cited many of the same positive results. As in New Mexico, the Colorado districts reported that student-achievement levels did not decline under the four-day schedule and that there were significant reductions in energy-related costs. The alternative schedule had very strong community support in the districts. The Colorado researchers also discovered that student and teacher attendance improved under the four-day schedule.

With such results, it might appear that the four-day school week would be an attractive plan for any district facing financial difficulties because the schedule offers the district the opportunity to cut costs without cutting programs or personnel, or hurting student achievement.

We should remember, however, that the New Mexico and Colorado experiments in four-day schooling both involve only small rural school districts, with enrollments of fewer than 500 students. The results reported for these districts might not be found in all school districts. There is good reason to speculate, for example, that parent support for the idea of a four-day week would be quite different in an urban area.

In rural areas, where ranching and farming are common occupations, one or both parents are often home during the day. Having children home on the off day does not seem to present a problem to these rural parents. In fact, a number of New Mexico families have welcomed the opportunity to have extra help around the farm or ranch from older children. By contrast, in many urban families today both parents work away from the home and would therefore need to make special arrangements for the supervision of their children if their district used a four-day week.

Even the most enthusiastic supporters of four-day schooling acknowledge that the four-day school week may have other disadvantages. The most common criticism is that the extended school day required by a four-day week is too long, especially for younger children. In New Mexico, some students are "at school" for more than 10 hours a day when transportation time is included. A few parents have complained that their children have no time for recreation or family activities during the school week because of the long day.

Some educators are also concerned that the four-day week may be detrimental to the progress of special-education students, who benefit most from daily repetition and who tend to regress when away from school. In addition, extracurricular activities are often curtailed to accommodate the lengthened school day. The scheduling of these activities after school or on the off day, as required in New Mexico, can be very inconvenient, working to exclude some students from participation.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the four-day week has been proven to be a workable option for many small school districts. In states where students are required by law to attend school for a certain minimum number of days, usually 180, districts could still take advantage of the energy savings of a four-day school week by going on this schedule for a limited number of weeks during the coldest part of the winter. A district could meet the 180-day requirement by rearranging the school calendar to start earlier, finish later, or take less time off during the scheduled "breaks."

The results of the New Mexico experiences with the four-day school week reinforce the argument that the manner in which available instructional time is used may be more important than the way in which that time is scheduled. Districts in New Mexico that wish to operate on a four-day week are "forced" to focus on instruction and cut out interruptions, and their students do well as a result. This has implications for all schools, regardless of their schedules. By concentrating on using available time effectively rather than merely increasing the amount of instructional time available, school districts may find a more cost-effective way of bringing about the educational reforms that are being called for in our nation.

Vol. 03, Issue 36, Page 18

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