School & District Management

As Districts Weigh 4-Day Weeks, Research Overlooks Their Most Pressing Questions

By Evie Blad — June 12, 2024 4 min read
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As more districts weigh whether to adopt four-day school weeks, existing research does not answer some of leaders’ most pressing—and common—questions.

There are reams of studies on shortened school weeks. But this growing body of research largely omits data on students’ race and ethnicity, or focuses on rural districts with largely white enrollment, making it difficult for diverse districts to probe equity concerns. And a majority of studies are silent on a key practical concern: What do schools do on the ‘fifth day,’ when students aren’t in the classroom?

Researchers at the University of Oregon’s HEDCO Institute for Evidence-Based Educational Practice identified those gaps as they created a comprehensive, searchable database of 111 empirical studies on four-day school weeks. Their aim is to help district leaders find evidence relevant to their school systems’ size, geography, and student populations as they consider the shift.

“Folks who are considering [four-day school weeks], they want to know what schools and districts provide on the fifth day, what might be the spillover effect on the surrounding community, and whether we see differential impacts based off of social gradients that we know are tied to structural oppression in this country,” said Sean Grant, a research associate professor at the University of Oregon who helped compile the research dashboard. “If no one’s reporting this [data], then we can’t unpack those questions.”

New interest in four-day school weeks

About 900 school districts in 26 states currently operate on a four-day school week, an increase of about 40 percent since 2019, a separate team of researchers at Oregon State University has found.

The effort to make research more accessible for educators comes amid a fresh surge of interest in four-day school weeks, Grant said. The abbreviated school schedule has seen previous waves of interest, largely from rural school systems, during economic downturns like the 2008 recession. As schools tackle the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, some larger, suburban districts have explored calendar changes as a tool to help balance budgets, build employee morale, and ease concerns about teacher recruitment, he said.

They include the 14,000-student Independence, Mo., district, which just concluded its first year of a four-day schedule—the largest in its state to do so. The shift has made it easier for the district to fill open positions, superintendent Dale Herl told Education Week in May.

“All of the research shows that the most important thing for student learning is having a high quality, certified teacher in your classrooms,” Herl said then. “By us going to a four-day week, we’ve been able to ensure that that has occurred.”

The move also helped motivate state lawmakers to attempt to slow down adoption. Missouri enacted a law this year that requires large districts to secure voter approval for four-day weeks and provides financial incentives for sticking with a five-day calendar.

Connecting educators to research

The University of Oregon team created the research dashboard after seeing an uptick in inquiries from district leaders who wanted to review studies on four-day weeks.

They conducted a “scoping review” of all 111 empirical studies they identified on the subject, identifying trends in the research methods. The team also spoke to a focus group of superintendents who’d considered four-day weeks to determine how to sort the information so that it would be more useful to decision makers.

Educators can filter the studies by the state where they were conducted, methodology, the grade level of students, and the size of the community. Users can also filter by outcome studied to find research that focuses on academic achievement, attendance, crime in the community, family factors, and staff retention.

However, some of those fields will yield more results than others. In their review, researchers found that 90 percent of studies focused on rural school systems. Sixty-seven of the 111 studies reported no data on students’ race, and the studies that included that demographic information took place in largely white districts.

Fifty-one studies in the review included information about what districts did on the “fifth day,” including teacher in-service, instruction for some students, and childcare.

Researchers plan to maintain the database as a “living review,” adding new and relevant studies over time, Grant said. They also plan to dig deeper into the existing research to identify findings that are consistent across studies.

Grant hopes the feedback from superintendents and the gaps identified in current findings will inspire future research.

“If researchers want educators to use evidence, the onus is really on researchers to think about what is relevant to a decisionmaker when they are trying to apply [research] to their school context,” he said.

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