As many school districts around the nation grapple with declines in state funding, some district leaders are arriving at a questionable solution: Cut the school week to four days. But are these districts adopting the shorter week without both considering other ways to save money and counting the risks to students?
In Oklahoma, where nearly a hundred school districts have shifted to four-day weeks, districts that cut instructional days still keep classrooms open for the same number of hours per year by extending the remaining school days, according to The Washington Post. All teachers and most professional staff get the same annual pay for the four longer days, with the savings coming only from that fifth day of busing costs, utility bills, and wages of some support staff, such as those in custodial or food services. Given that professional salaries account for the lion’s share of district spending, this is a tough way to save money.
Newcastle, one such hard-hit Oklahoma district, saved $110,000 per year out of its $12 million annual budget by switching to a four-day week. The district cut 20 percent of its school days in order to save 0.9 percent (yes, that’s nine-tenths of one percent) of its budget. Districts in other states get about the same results, according to a 2011 study from the Education Commission of the States.
There are lots of ways to save 1 percent of the budget, none pain-free. Newcastle, for example, employs over 100 teachers. In a normal year, four to six teachers would retire or move away, and not filling their jobs would save a lot more than 1 percent of the district budget, according to my research at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Depending on which teachers leave, the district could rely on less costly online courses to fill the gap or ask an administrator to fill in. Other alternatives include reducing the time that school libraries are open, cutting vice principals in the high school, eliminating substitutes, and expecting administrators to cover for absent teachers.
Supporters of the four-day week assert that the longer days make up for the missed fifth day. But teachers and students, especially the younger children, may not work as effectively at the end of such long days, thus reducing overall learning. Low-income and minority students, who generally have fewer learning resources at home, stand to lose disproportionately from the loss of a day in school. High school students assigned homework every school day will have one less evening of preparation per week. And days lost to illness or weather will have a greater impact on learning time.
Nobody seriously argues that less time in school will increase student learning. And here’s the rub: The hundreds of four-day-week districts in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, and Oregon are overwhelmingly rural districts, which, on average, fall below state means on student achievement, graduation rates, and college attendance. A policy that just holds student results to previous levels will not expand students’ college options or help communities attract new businesses and jobs.
There are lots of ways to save 1 percent of the budget, none pain-free."
While there is little concrete research on the impact of such a significant schedule shift, a doctoral dissertation from the University of Montana that analyzed results over several years reported a decline in achievement scores of students with four-day school weeks once the novelty wore off and good intentions eroded.
At the Center on Reinventing Public Education, we have been studying the spread of the four-day week throughout the West and Midwest and often hear how popular it is with teachers and some families who enjoy a day off or the ability to take advantage of the long weekend. We also hear how rural district leaders are finding that teachers like it so much that returning to a five-day week would be politically difficult, no matter what happens to revenues or how it affects student outcomes.
At a time when rural and small-town communities are suffering in many ways, nobody should be complacent about actions that could make things worse. Some localities might look at all the facts and decide that a four-day week will work for their students. That’s their right in an era of local control. But governors and state superintendents of education need to make sure local communities look at real numbers and don’t jump blindly onto a bandwagon that they might never be able to get off.
It would help if states, starting with Oklahoma, increased funding to rural districts to make up for purchasing power lost since the 2008 recession. States could also eliminate requirements like class-size caps that districts can’t afford or comply with, but which cause them to keep their teacher counts up even as everything else crumbles.
A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Beware the Four-Day School-Week Trap