In the last decade, shortened school weeks have been adopted in more than 1,600 schools in 650 school districts nationwide. Initially seen as a way to cut costs, rural districts in particular have lauded the model as a way to draw in teachers and students looking for more-flexible schedules.
However, implementation of the four-day schedules has varied significantly, and in recent years, the model has sparked heated debates over whether it is consistent with efforts to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic.
In Oklahoma, for example, districts can schedule fewer than 180 days in a school year, as long as they continue to provide 1,080 instructional hours, maintain student academic achievement, and show cost savings—criteria most districts have been unable to meet since the pandemic. That’s led to fights between state lawmakers who want to do away with the shortened weeks and rural education leaders who back them.
As educators and policymakers continue to debate the use of shortened school weeks, here are four studies to know about how they can affect students and schools.
1. Maintaining instructional time is critical
At first blush, a 2022 study of the effects of shortened school schedules in 12 states seems pretty bleak. Nationwide, researchers found significantly lower math and English/language arts achievement at schools using four-day weeks during the time period from 2009-2018 than in schools using a traditional schedule.
However, when study author Paul Thompson, a public policy research professor at Oregon State University, and his colleagues dug deeper, they found instructional time made the difference for student achievement. They found no significant differences in academic achievement between districts that used five-day schedules and those that used four-day schedules, as long as the districts with shorter weeks maintained a high or medium amount of instructional time for students.
The significant drops in math and reading achievement were concentrated in districts that had the least instructional time after moving from a five-day to four-day weekly schedule.
“Low time in school in conjunction with the four-day school week appears to be extremely problematic for academic achievement and school districts and states should be cognizant of these negative consequences,” Thompson concluded.
He suggested that schools could experiment with carving out more teaching time through limiting recess, lunch, or study periods, but should be careful to also track how these types of schedule changes affect student engagement and achievement.
2. Cost savings may be in the details rather than the bottom line
While some rural districts have been using shortened schedules for decades, the biggest momentum for the model came following the 2008 recession, when cash-strapped rural districts were looking for ways to cut costs.
That’s still one of the main reasons districts cite for moving to a four-day week, but a nationwide study by the Education Commission of the States suggests education leaders should not hope for a budget miracle from schedule changes. The ECS found that districts using shortened weeks trimmed on average .4 percent to 2.5 percent off their budgets.
A more recent study of Oklahoma districts specifically found those that moved to four-day weeks saved about 2 percent of their budgets, driven by savings in noninstructional costs such as operations, transportation, and food services.
3. Shortened schedules may equal calmer schools
Shortened school weeks may have made Oklahoma middle and high schools calmer and safer, though the model has done nothing to improve students’ attendance or academic achievement.
A study, in the journal of Educational Research and Policy Analysis, tracked student performance over a dozen years and attendance and discipline over nine years, as 411 districts across the state adopted the four-day model for at least some of their schools.
After moving to shortened weeks, schools saw on average a 39 percent drop in bullying and a 31 percent decline in the number of fights and assaults on campus. To put that into perspective, that’s a nearly twice as large an effect as the average 20 percent drop in bullying behaviors seen for common school-based anti-bullying programs.
“You hear over and over again, from students, from teachers, that kids are happier, that there’s increased morale, there’s improved school climate, there’s positive effects on school discipline,” said Emily Morton, a research scientist at the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA and the author of the study.
However, shortened schedules had no effect on discipline problems related to drugs or alcohol, vandalism, truancy, school bus misbehavior, or bringing weapons to school. Likewise, the study found no significant difference in SAT scores, attendance rates and truancy, or disciplinary infractions for vandalism for high school students who attended under shortened weeks.
4. Urban districts may take a hit
While many rural districts have favored shortened weeks, one of the first urban school districts to adopt the model—School District 27J outside Denver—saw academic and community downsides.
A study released in January found that two years after making the schedule change, the district’s implementation costs outweighed its cost savings, while student academic achievement fell significantly. Moreover, retention was 3 percentage points lower for teachers—and 5 percentage points lower for veteran teachers of 15 years or more—in schools with four-day weeks than in similar ones with traditional five-day weeks.
“This finding does not necessarily mean that teachers do not value a [four-day week]. Instead, it suggests that the teachers that [left the district] were unwilling to trade off the higher salaries offered by outside opportunities for the benefits offered by a [four-day week schedule],” researchers concluded.
The researchers found local home values dropped 4 percent in the communities with four-day school weeks compared to those just over the border in a different district with traditional schedules. As a result, homeowners paid $700 to $6,000 more than they would have in property taxes.
Takeaways for administrators
The emerging research suggests school and district leaders should think carefully if they choose to implement shortened school weeks, said Morton of NWEA. She recommended that leaders:
- Get community buy-in for the four-day schedule and communicate regularly with both parent and business stakeholders to identify the supports needed. “If parents aren’t gonna be able to support their kids on that extra day, it’s going to be a huge financial hardship for families,” she said.
- Audit instructional minutes for each subject and commit to maintaining or increasing instructional time even with fewer days. “Superintendents need to know that on average we do see negative effects of this schedule,” she said, “so make sure that you are not shortchanging your kids on the amount of time that they’re getting in those subjects.”
- Closely monitor student achievement and engagement and compare the data both to prior district data and those of surrounding districts. “We’ve seen some evidence suggesting negative effects may compound over time, ... so district leaders need to be very attentive to their own students and, if there’s evidence that this is negatively impacting students, ... switch back,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Four Studies to Know About 4-Day School Schedules