The move from a five-day school week to a four-day week with extended days has been one of the fastest-increasing—and least-studied—phenomena shaping district operations.
It boomed after the Great Recession, especially in small, far-flung districts looking to try to save cash and attract teachers. Now, the widest-reaching analysis of the practice to date paints a nuanced picture of the effects of the switch.
The four-day week is enormously popular among parents and students, the new research finds. It typically saves districts a small—but not intangible—amount of cash. And on their day out of school, students are typically working, doing errands, or spending time with family, not running wild.
The tradeoff for those benefits, though, shows in learning. Several years after adopting a four-day schedule, the researchers found, those districts saw slower rates of student progress than similarly situated districts that retained a five-day schedule.
In a sense, the findings underscore the mix of factors beyond test scores that district leaders and communities weigh when making decisions and point towards some of the more-general tensions at the heart of K-12 schooling.
Is the point of schooling just to raise achievement? Are there other civic benefits that accrue from these arrangements, like helping to instill in students a sense of responsibility through jobs or other duties? Just how should these competing interests be weighed?
“When I think about ed[ucation] policy debates, I often assume that achievement will be the king of all the outcomes. And it was pretty clear that when we talked to people that they did have this ‘whole-child’ model guiding their thinking,” said Rebecca Kilburn, one of a half-dozen researchers who conducted the study for the RAND Corp., a research and analysis group. “And they really did talk about everything from sleep, to stress, to spending more time with their families.”
A broad picture from four-day districts
The study, released Oct. 7, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A team of researchers used three main methods to study the complex phenomenon.
More than 1,600 U.S. school districts have adopted the model as of 2019-20. In some states, it represents a significant, widespread restructuring of district operations, including 60 percent of Colorado’s districts and around 40 percent of New Mexico’s and Oregon’s.
The researchers interviewed more than 400 parents, teachers, administrators, and students in three states with large numbers of districts using the four-day model: Idaho, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. They also administered thousands of surveys to secondary students and to the parents of elementary students in 36 districts across those states and in three others—half of them using the four-day schedule and half using a traditional schedule—and collected data on their school schedules.
Finally, they analyzed nearly a decade’s worth of student test scores across four- and five-day districts in six different states, looking for patterns in how students performed.
Among some of the most important findings:
- When timing was added up, districts in the sample using the four-day schedule had longer days by about 50 minutes, but over the course of the year averaged 58 fewer hours of school.
- Students in the four-day weeks spent significantly more time on school sports and on chores than did those in five-day weeks. Four-day secondary students also spent more time on homework, at jobs, at school activities, and on hobbies than their counterparts.
- Most students in the four-day districts—80 percent of high school students and 90 percent of elementary students—spent their “off day” at home.
- The four-day week did not appear to affect student-absenteeism rates or result in more food insecurity for students.
- It did seem to change some sleep patterns, with four-day elementary students reporting that they got more sleep and four-day secondary students saying that they felt much less tired than their counterparts in five-day systems.
- Parents and students, given the choice, overwhelmingly said they favored the four-day model, with 69 percent of the former and 85 percent of the latter preferring it over five-day schedules.
That final finding came as a bit of a surprise, said Kilburn, who is now a research professor at the Centers for Disease Control Prevention Research Center at the University of New Mexico.
“In the policy debates, you often hear people saying, ‘We shouldn’t do it because parents won’t like it.’ Actually, in the district where people chose to switch, people really like it a lot, and it might be really tough to switch back once you do it,” she said.
The focus group interviews, in the meantime, fleshed out just why district leaders were willing to make the shift. They also provided context for other research showing that districts usually save below 3 percent of their costs, mainly in transportation, operations, and support-staff salaries, when moving to a shorter week.
Focus groups flesh out a complex picture
Some scholars have criticized the approach on the grounds that it saves such seemingly small amounts of money. But superintendents noted in interviews that even when the savings amounted to just a percentage or two, that was enough to hire an additional reading coach or fund some other program—no small feat in a time of fixed budgets and rising costs.
Similarly, in one district, the four-day week aligned well to work shifts in the town’s larger employer. In another district with a high proportion of Native American students, Kilburn recalled, the schedule allowed students and families to participate in tribal feasts or festivals that traditionally span several days.
“One of them said, ‘This is really great because we don’t have half our student body gone on feast days, and we don’t have students having to choose between coming to school and engaging in their traditional practices,’” she noted.
One eyebrow-raising finding could be the increased amount of chores four-day students appeared to engage in. But that category also included things like errands and medical appointments. In rural locations, where doctors’ offices, retail centers, orthodontists, and so forth can be several hours’ drive away, the four-day week gave them the opportunity to handle those duties without missing a day of school, the researchers found.
On the other hand, Kilburn noted, interviewees also said that while the four-day week was a good fit for their communities, they did not necessarily think it was workable in other locations with different circumstances.
What happens to student learning in four-day districts?
The study’s marquee finding will probably be what it says about student learning. To answer that tricky question, the researchers coupled student test-score growth data from a Stanford University project with federal data to adjust for district poverty and other factors. Then they compared similarly situated four- and five-day districts across those time periods.
The researchers found that there was no significant difference between four- and five-day districts when looking at absolute measures of student proficiency. But looking at growth over time shifted that picture.
Around three years after the switch, student growth in the four-day districts began to fall short compared to that in similarly situated five-day districts. The finding grew more pronounced with time and the slowdown in achievement was more dramatic in math than in reading. In all, the declines were on the order of between 0.05 to 0.15 of a standard deviation lower after three years, and around 0.2 of a standard deviation after eight years.
Effect sizes are hard to interpret in K-12 education but at least one research paper describes that as a medium to large effect—one that’s certainly larger than many other K-12 interventions. (The findings also echo those of a separate study on the effects of the policy in Oregon.)
In all, the study’s findings don’t align well with the rhetoric about the four-day week from either proponents or detractors.
The approach doesn’t appear to disadvantage working parents where it’s been tried or lead to worse social outcomes for students. On the other hand, it also doesn’t seem to yield huge cost savings, and with time seemed to slow student learning.
Even so, there are still unanswered questions about the the four-day week, the researchers concluded.
One thing that the study couldn’t pinpoint was just how the four-day week, sometimes characterized as a perk for educators, might affect teacher recruitment and retention. It can take years for such changes to alter the composition of the teacher workforce via who is attracted to teaching, who applies to open jobs, and how the change affects existing teachers’ retirement decisions.
Second, it remains unclear just why the four-day week affects learning.
The decrease in actual learning time could be the culprit, since time in school is connected to learning outcomes, but that hypothesis needs to be tested empirically.
A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4-Day School Weeks: New Research Examines the Benefits and Drawbacks