Could switching to a shorter school week, though with longer school days, actually give students an academic advantage?
A recent study of rural Colorado elementary schools suggests that yes, it could.
The study looked at 15 schools that had switched to a four-day school week sometime between 2000 and 2010, and compared test results before and after the policy change. The authors also compared those schools to other similar schools that maintained the five-day week, controlling for variables such as poverty levels, population density, student-teacher ratio, and racial demographics. Based on data availability, they looked at math scores for 5th grade students and reading scores for 4th graders.
The results, published recently in the journal Education Finance and Policy, show that students were more likely to score proficient or advanced in math after changing to the four-day week.
“With the math test scores, our results were very robust and statistically significantly positive,” Mark Anderson, an assistant professor of economics at Montana State University and a co-author of the study, said in a phone interview.
Other Possible Benefits
In reading, improvement in test scores was also correlated to a shorter week, but the data weren’t always statistically significant. “That’s why we gave the conservative interpretation,” said Anderson. “We want to say it’s improving test scores, but [we know] it’s definitely not harming our reading test scores.”
While the study only looked at 4th and 5th graders, Anderson says he would expect the results to generalize for other elementary students around those grades.
The findings in both math and reading surprised Anderson. “Especially with these elementary kids, you’re giving them an extra day off but their attention span isn’t necessarily the greatest, and you’re asking them to stay in school another hour of the day,” he said. “My prior thought was you might even see the test scores go down.”
The study also found some anecdotal evidence that moving to a four-day week may help attendance rates, too. But again, those results weren’t quite statistically significant.
About 3 percent of Colorado’s students currently attend a four-day school week. Most of those students live in rural and sparsely populated areas.
“You can imagine, especially in some small isolated rural town, on a day off you can schedule doctors’ appointments or dentist appointments that you previously missed school for because you had to travel,” said Anderson.
Figuring Out Why
The study did not, however, give much insight into why having a shorter week—which also means having longer individual school days—might be leading to an uptick in math scores and steady results (or better) in reading.
There are lots of possible explanations, said Anderson, such as more continuity in lesson plans, more preparation time for teachers, more time for students to do homework, etc.
“The only data we were able to look at that tried to pin down the mechanisms were instructional expenditures per student,” he said. Many district leaders claim that going to a shorter week allows them to save costs, which they then put toward instructional resources. But that doesn’t appear to be true. “If you go to a 4-day week, we found no evidence that instructional expenditures went up,” Anderson said.
That finding is consistent with another recent study on schools using the four-day school week in rural Idaho. As my colleague Jackie Mader reported, those districts experienced no cost savings, and some even saw costs rise.
Anderson said the gains in math achievement were “a very policy-relevant finding for school districts thinking of making this change” to the four-day week.
He added that he’d like to see further research on how the four-day week affects teacher turnover and teacher preparation time.
A school bus travels toward a rural school district in Hawaii. --Marco Garcia/AP for Education Week-File
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.