School & District Management

The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks

By Mark Lieberman — May 21, 2024 7 min read
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The Independence school district just east of Kansas City, Mo., this Friday will wrap up its first school year implementing a four-days-a-week schedule. From Superintendent Dale Herl’s perspective, the switch has been a massive success.

A significant majority of parents and staff recently expressed in a survey that they’re happy with the current schedule and wouldn’t want to switch back. Finding qualified candidates for positions like teachers, bus drivers, and nurses was easier than ever in the last 15 years.

“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. “By us going to a four-day week, we’ve been able to ensure that that has occurred.”

With roughly 14,000 students, Independence is the largest of more than 120 districts in the state, and one of the largest in the country, to adopt a four-day school week in recent years.

However, some state lawmakers aren’t convinced the model is worth promoting. Missouri recently approved legislation that will eventually require large school districts like Independence to secure voter approval once per decade to continue operating on a four-day week schedule. The state is also offering an annual financial bonus—initially equivalent to one percent of the district’s allocation of state aid—for districts that maintain or switch back to a five-day schedule.

Herl is in touch with many of the dozens of superintendents in Missouri districts that operate four days a week. None of them, he said, is considering restoring the fifth day as a result of the new policies.

But Paul Fregeau, superintendent of the 10,300-student Fox district south of St. Louis, said the new law helped convince him and his colleagues to put off for at least a year any decision about whether the district should move to a four-day school week. His district is experiencing a budget deficit, and the extra cash from the state will help soften the financial blow.

He also wants to see how the four-day school week fares among voters in other parts of the state.

“It’ll be interesting to see the communities that have been in it for a while, what their votes are,” Fregeau said. “That’ll send a strong message one way or the another.”

Some states want to discourage four-day school weeks

The debate over four-day school weeks in Missouri reflects broader disagreement across the country about the benefits and drawbacks of the approach.

Most of the nation’s 13,000 public school districts in the U.S. still open their doors to students five days a week. But in recent years, just shy of 1,000 districts in states like Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, and Texas have moved to a four-day weekly schedule, often dropping either Monday or Friday. Some individual schools have joined in too—the Lafayette school district in Indiana recently approved a four-day school week for Vinton Elementary starting next year.

Some states are moving to increase flexibility for school district schedules. Late last year, Pennsylvania modified its law to allow school districts to operate 180 days per year or between 900 and 990 hours per year, rather than having to satisfy both requirements.

Others aren’t so eager. New Mexico school districts recently sued the state and convinced a judge to temporarily halt a newly passed school calendar law that effectively prevents districts from adopting four-day school weeks. A lawmaker in Louisiana floated an outright ban on school weeks of less than five days. And in Idaho, some district leaders are confused about whether a new state funding opportunity for improving their facilities hinges on their school system remaining open five days a week.

Researchers continue to paint a mixed picture of the effects of four-day school weeks. A study published in February by Missouri’s state education department found no significant difference in academic achievement regardless of the length of the school week. A RAND study in 2023, meanwhile, found small decreases in the growth of student achievement in districts with four-day weeks.

The model is growing more popular, though. Two-thirds of teachers, principals, and district leaders who responded to an EdWeek Research Center survey in December said they’d be either slightly or much more willing to accept a job offer from a district with a four-day school week. Seventy percent of teacher respondents said they support a four-day school week.

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Each district has a unique approach to a shortened week

No two four-day school weeks look exactly alike.

Some districts look to four-day school weeks to save money. The Fox schools, for instance, estimates it would annually save $300,000 to $400,000 on transportation costs with one fewer day of bus operations, Fregeau said.

Others see the model as a tool to recruit and retain teachers who might otherwise seek districts that offer higher pay.

Herl told colleagues and community members upfront that his approach to a four-day school week likely wouldn’t reduce the district’s annual expenses, and might even raise them. But the district was struggling mightily to retain teachers, in line with broader statewide trends—less than half of new teachers are staying in the same district for four years, according to state data.

A four-day workweek enticed some candidates who might otherwise have gravitated towards nearby districts that pay more, he said. The district extended the school day by 35 minutes to ensure students don’t lose instructional time.

The timing of the school year also factors into some districts’ decision-making around the length of the school week. In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district is considering a four-day school week if the state doesn’t agree to the district’s proposal to start the 2024-25 school year earlier than the law currently permits.

Some districts, like Independence, pay staff who work five days a week the same amount for working one day less. Others, like the rural Warren County, Mo., district west of St. Louis, dock a portion of their pay to reflect their reduced hours.

Even so, the new funding stream for districts operating five days a week didn’t convince the 3,000-student Warren County district to make the switch, said Superintendent Gregg Klinginsmith. State law requires districts to spend the money only on raising teacher salaries.

That wouldn’t have made up for the additional costs of transportation and other expenses for a fifth day of in-person instruction. And it wouldn’t have made staff more likely to stick around, he said.

“We asked teachers, ‘Do you want to give up your Mondays and make $500 more a year?’” Klinginsmith said. “The resounding answer was no.”

New policies could be costly for districts

Tensions are rising between districts and states over who should have the final say on four-day school weeks.

A bill in Minnesota would eliminate the current requirement that districts seek approval from the state education department before adopting the four-day school week.

In Missouri, districts in cities or counties with more than 30,000 residents will have to put the four-day school week to a community vote once every ten years, starting with the 2025-26 school year.

The Fox district will have to pay the state $145,000 just to get the item on the local ballot, Fregeau said.

“For us, that’s two teachers,” he said. That doesn’t include the cost of creating written materials to help community members understand the stakes of the election.

Some voters may already be forming their own opinions on the four-day workweek, which has gained mainstream attention in recent years as some companies in the U.S. and beyond have shaved a day off their weekly calendars. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, recently proposed legislation that would make the four-day workweek standard across America.

In districts that have adopted the four-day week, parents tend to worry about how their children are going to spend the extra day at home. But the anxiety tends to dissipate once the schedule takes hold, district leaders in Missouri said.

That’s in part because the four-day school week can be a misnomer. Many districts use the day off to offer supplemental instruction for struggling students, professional development opportunities for staff, or partner with community colleges on new course offerings.

“When you make the move, people are very concerned, I get a lot of feedback,” Klinginsmith said. “But since we’ve made the switch, I don’t think I’ve had a phone call in five years on people that are upset about it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2024 edition of Education Week as The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks

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