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Shorter School Weeks: An Unproven Experiment

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Four-day schools represent a dramatic trend in Idaho education.

And an unproven experiment.

This year, 9.1 percent of Idaho’s public school student body, or 26,881 students, will spend just four days per week in school. Their days run 45 minutes to an hour longer than a five-day school.

These students live, by and large, in small towns. They span the state, from the Boundary County district that borders British Columbia to the Preston district on the Utah line, from Riggins’ Salmon River district to Blackfoot’s Snake River district. Nearly two out of every five districts in Idaho use a four-day calendar, 43 districts in all. In 2006-07, that number was 10.

Those trends are clear.

The effects on students are less clear.

No one can say with certainty whether the four-day schedule helps or hinders student growth. Nor does the concentrated schedule seem to save districts much money.

Opinions are rampant. Hard statistics are scarce.

And yet Idaho’s political leaders have shown little interest in seeking out answers.

A Complicated Reality

Four-day schools often provide a convenient metaphor for larger issues.

Special Series

No one can say with certainty whether the four-day schedule helps or hinders student growth. Nor does the concentrated schedule seem to save districts much money. Opinions are rampant. Hard statistics are scarce. And the state’s political leaders have done little to find answers.

Those are the findings from an in-depth four-month examination by Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television. Read more here.

To critics, four-day schools symbolize the state’s failure to support public education, despite language in the Constitution requiring adequate funding. To advocates, four-day schools embody local control — even innovation.

The realities are less tidy.

Here are some key findings from an in-depth four-month examination by Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television:

  • The academic statistics are inconclusive, but troubling. This spring, students in four-day schools struggled on on new online tests aligned to Idaho Core Standards. Students in four-day schools scored lower on the SAT, a college entrance exam. Most four-day schools lag well behind on Idaho’s overarching education goal: boosting a meager college attendance rate.
  • Many districts adopted the four-day schedule to stay afloat during the recession, but saved little money in the process. Some districts balked at cutting staff hours — always a difficult decision in rural communities, where jobs are often scarce.
  • Many teachers have grown to like the four-day schedule, and administrators have adjusted to a changing labor market. Many superintendents see the four-day calendar as a key to recruiting teachers to small-town Idaho, and keeping experienced teachers on the job.
  • The four-day calendar has freed up Fridays across a wide swath of the state. Some four-day schools use this day for regimented and focused teacher training — considering this a key to improved student achievement. In other districts, teachers and students are on their own on Fridays.

A Popular Option

At the height of the recession, the four-day calendar was seen — and spun — as a money-saver. The storyline has changed over time, as proponents tout other benefits less easily quantified.

Skeptics might chalk this up to a human tendency to put the best face on a challenging situation. Regardless, support for the four-day schedule is palpable, albeit based on anecdotal information. The support runs counter to conventional wisdom: the assumption that schools were forced into adopting a four-day schedule and cannot wait to go back.

“It’s a mental block for some people, to understand how the four-day school week gets you more instruction at a cheaper cost,” said Shoshone district Superintendent Rob Waite, an ardent backer of the four-day approach.

Steve McClain, a 37-year teacher at Notus High School, said he was pleasantly surprised to see he could cover his social studies and history lessons in a four-day week. He also sensed a change in energy.

“I thought the students were a lot fresher coming in on Monday mornings,” he said. “When I came back on Mondays, I was actually ready to go.”

Preston High School senior Berkli Knapp would not want to give up three-day weekends, because they help her juggle classes, volleyball matches and track and field meets and her job at a local fast-food restaurant, Arctic Circle.

“Personally, I think it’s really nice to have a day to do homework,” she said.

When Boise’s Sage International School opened in 2010-11, Libby Adams’ second-grade son was sold from the start on the charter’s four-day schedule. He’s still at Sage, joined by two younger siblings. Adams sees no downside to the schedule. “We’ve been able to find a nice balance with our family.”

Even opponents concede they are hitting a headwind of public opinion.

Mary Ann Cox believes the four-day calendar disrupts family life. Her three school-age children are tired all week, and spend Fridays scrambling to catch up on chores. “Fridays are not this relaxing luxury day that I thought they were going to be.” She lobbied the Preston district to return to a five-day schedule. Even before trustees voted on Nov. 18 to keep the four-day schedule, Cox wasn’t optimistic about the prospects.

Gary Pflueger is in his first year as superintendent in Boundary County. His predecessor, Dick Conley, was an enthusiastic four-day school supporter. Pflueger prefers a five-day schedule, because he believes the Fridays off are bad for at-risk students. But he doesn’t think his district has the money or the inclination to switch.

“It’s clearly not up to me,” he said.

Otter: 'What Am I Going to Ask Them?'

A PowerPoint presentation on the State Department of Education’s website dodges the central question surrounding four-day schools. “There is a lack of evidence that the four-day school week helps or hurts student achievement,” it says.

The document is significant not for findings, but for its age. It was completed in 2008. Seven years later, the department has no follow-up research in the works, said Jeff Church, a spokesman for state superintendent Sherri Ybarra.

In a Nov. 3 interview, Gov. Butch Otter acknowledged the lack of data, but expressed no interest in having his appointed State Board of Education look into the matter.

“But I haven’t purposely not asked the State Board,” he said. “What am I going to ask them?”

A day later, Otter changed his position. In a public meeting, he suggested a review of four-day school academic performance — and State Board member Richard Westerberg agreed to work with Ybarra’s department.

Otter and Ybarra aren’t alone in their hands-off attitude. Rod Gramer, CEO of Idaho Business for Education, is one of Otter’s K-12 confidantes. His statewide group of business leaders has not studied four-day issues.

The legislative branch has shown scant interest as well. Its auditing arm, the Office of Performance Evaluations, has completed exhaustive reports on several intricate educational issues, at lawmakers’ behest. OPE has never been asked to look at four-day schools, director Rakesh Mohan said.

Steven Thayn, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has spent 10 years in the Legislature. He has pushed for dual credit and pushed back against Common Core. His sprawling legislative district has six four-day districts and a four-day charter school. But he has no strong opinion about scheduling. “I just think there are lots of other factors that are more important,” he said.

House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt is encouraged by the anecdotal evidence, which suggests four-days may have “stumbled” onto something that works.

“I’d love to have some of those questions answered, but in fairness, we haven’t asked them yet,” said DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.

A Shortage Of Answers

Like Pflueger, Greg Alexander is in his first year as superintendent in a four-day district. He was hired by the Garden Valley district in May, days after Ybarra eliminated his state job as director of school improvement and support.

The four-day schedule is an adjustment, providing less after-school time to meet with parents and kids. “Initially, I’m not sure about it,” he said. “I feel like I’m missing a few things.”

When it comes to his old boss, Alexander chooses his words carefully. But he says it would help if the state would provide districts with more data about financial and academic impacts.

Unsupported by data, overlooked by policymakers, four-day schools may be Idaho’s biggest education change that no one talks about. Yet the number of four-day schools continues to swell. The four-day schedule is at once an unproven concept and a growing trend.

“Rescheduled Education” is the product of a partnership between Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television. Reporting on the series are Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News and Seth Ogilvie and Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television. Video producers are Andrew Reed of Idaho Education News and Troy Shreve of Idaho Public Television. Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader compiled data for the series.

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