Google the phrase “four-day school week” and up pop multiple news articles on the trending topic. In the past few months alone, school districts in Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas have announced the move to the new schedule.
The shorter week is typically used as a temporary cost-saving measure in smaller, cash-strapped districts. The main driver now? To attract and hold onto teachers.
“More and more now, the option is used as a teacher recruitment and retention tool,” said Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In the past two years, the number of school districts in Missouri that have adopted the four-day week has nearly doubled, and will likely surpass 140 in the upcoming school year, McGowin said.
Missouri isn’t unique. As of 2018, an estimated 560 districts in 25 states were using the four-day-a-week schedule, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Among districts pioneering the condensed schedule, a few as early as the 1970s, most were in small, rural communities that tended to make the switch to reduce costs. But, as Missouri’s McGowin notes, the more recent wave of schedule switchers are using the strategy to help solve serious staffing challenges.
The pandemic has both worsened the teacher shortage and made more plausible the tactic of shortening the school week to alleviate the problem. For starters, the pandemic left many in the teaching profession feeling burned out and reconsidering their career choice.
More than half of 3,621 respondents to a February 2022 National Education Association survey said they were considering leaving the education profession earlier than anticipated. The pandemic also led employees in all industries to re-think their priorities, emphasizing a better work-life balance: An overwhelming 92 percent of U.S. employees in a recent nationwide survey said that they’d prefer a four-day over a five-day work schedule.
Additionally, these 1,000-plus respondents reported that the four-day work week—more than any other employee perk—would convince them to stay at their job.
Tack on the normalization of altered school schedules during the pandemic (e.g. remote, hybrid, and asynchronous learning days), and the concept of a permanent four-day work week begins to seem like a reasonable, perhaps preferable, schedule to educators.
Advocates see immediate benefits
Some district officials think so too. Those who recently made the switch to a four-day week say they’ve seen an immediate impact on their staffing levels.
New Mexico’s Socorro Consolidated Schools faced 11 teacher vacancies for the 2020–21 academic year. Overall, the district has 268 employees—approximately 111 of those are teachers. With no qualified applicants from the United States, Superintendent Ron Hendrix sought and filled the vacancies with candidates from the Philippines. Then the district switched to a four-day week, effective for the 2021-22 year. The district again faced approximately the same number of job vacancies as the year prior. But this time, it was able to fill all but two positions—a culinary arts and a band leader job—without expanding the candidate search globally.
“It’s made a big difference with my teachers. Morale boost has really been one of the biggest things I’ve seen [as a result of the schedule change],” said Hendrix, who also observes its impact on new hires: “If someone’s getting out of college, they’re not going to come to the middle of nowhere if they don’t have something to encourage them.”
In some districts, the condensed schedule serves as the encouragement job candidates need to accept a job—especially when the salary doesn’t. Such has been the case in Colorado’s 27J school district, a 20,300-student system in the Denver area that may be the largest in the nation on a four-day schedule, according to Superintendent Chris Fiedler.
Fiedler says the district made the decision to move to a four-day week in 2018 after its sixth failed attempt to increase teacher salaries via a mill levy override, a voter-approved property tax used for local school operations.
“It was solely to attract and retain quality adults to work with kids,” said Fiedler of the move made by his district, which he says pays about 20 percent less than neighboring ones.
The schedule change has produced the desired effect.
“I know it’s a reason some people join us,” Fiedler said. “We’ve hired teachers away from surrounding communities.”
Skeptics raise concerns about shorter weeks
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is skeptical and has flagged concerns about a truncated work week. She issued this statement against the concept: “A shortened workweek is not a ‘magic pill’ to solve the problem of educator shortages and, in some cases, could be wielded as an excuse by administrators not to invest in schools. Teachers want to be in school helping kids—with the conditions they need to succeed.”
Other notable skeptics say districts are overlooking the long-term negative effects on student learning in favor of a tactic to address an immediate problem.
Education researcher Paul Hill acknowledges that districts that lock in the four-day week may initially see a spike in teacher recruitment and retention. Nonetheless, he calls the move “a race to the bottom” and argues that with a shorter school week comes less instruction—and less learning—for students.
“[The shorter week] doesn’t have to be evaluated, or monitored. It just happens,” said Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and emeritus professor at the University of Washington Bothell.
Careful planning and communication precede effective change
While there’s no single process that precedes a change to the four-day school week, those who facilitated the switch in their districts described a deliberate, thoughtful approach.
Superintendent Fiedler says the change to a four-day week in his district came after extensive planning. The many adaptations included detailed schedule amendments, affordable day-care provisions for families on the day off (Friday), and the preservation of extracurricular offerings and athletics–even when they required adjustments, like installing lights for later practices and events. The district’s website contains detailed information about the switch that families can access.
Fiedler was intentional about how he made adjustments. For instance, unlike most districts that operate Tuesday through Friday, Fiedler intentionally chose Monday as the “off” day. His rationale: Teachers would be more likely to use Monday to plan for the week ahead. A Friday, he reasoned, could feel more like the start to a three-day weekend. Also, Fiedler’s district uses select Mondays for teachers to come to school for meetings with staff or parents, and professional development.
The careful planning and communication appears to have paid off.
“We had six different meetings with parents. As you can imagine, the first couple were pretty intense,” Fiedler said. “We went from being afraid they [parents] were going to tar and feather us to getting a round of applause for being innovative and brave.”
Fiedler says the pandemic has made it difficult to gauge the impact of the condensed schedule on student academic outcomes. The district hasn’t had full-blown statewide assessments since the spring of 2019; results from internal assessments, he says, have been pretty flat.
“I’m pleased with flat, given all the other distractions of the pandemic,” Fiedler said.
He does, however, point to one measure of student success: the district’s graduation rate. In 2017, the last year of the five-day schedule, the district’s graduation rate was 77.4 percent. The overall graduation rate has risen incrementally every academic year since the four-day week was implemented in 2018-19, reaching 88.2 percent in 2021.
Since the origin of the four-day schedule, the district’s Hispanic students (who make up 46 percent of the district’s total student population) netted an increased graduation rate of nearly 4 percent. In 2021, 27J’s Hispanic student graduation rate was 86.7 percent—12.5 percent higher than that of Hispanic students statewide, and 5 percent higher than Colorado’s overall graduation rate.
Meanwhile, Fiedler says, the district remains “dead last” in funding compared to others in the state.
Teachers as champions for the change
Without the funding to make teacher salaries more competitive, districts like 27J use the four-day week as a leveraging tool to attract teachers, whom Fiedler says have been the biggest champions of the change at his district.
That comes as no surprise to Frank Walston, a retired teacher and executive director of the New Mexico Association of Classroom Teachers. More than a decade ago, he spearheaded the committee in his district that researched and facilitated the condensed school week in Capitan Municipal Schools, a small rural New Mexico district where he taught before retiring in 2017.
“I love a four-day school week,” Walston said. “I also understand its limitations.”
The practice requires adjustments, says Walston. For instance, shorter weeks generally mean longer class periods by about 10 to 15 minutes, which both teachers and students need to get accustomed to.
Walston also acknowledges that nonsalaried employees could suffer pay losses in the switch. When the district where he taught initially went to a four-day schedule about a decade ago, the bus drivers in his district—who were employed by a transportation company—lost wages due to the shortened work week. But eventually, the district bought the buses, allowing the bus drivers to become district employees with the option to pick up additional work hours doing other jobs in the schools.
Walston says that, in his experience, once teachers adjust to the schedule change they don’t want to go back.
“We had a teacher who left Capitan and went to another district with a five-day schedule,” he said. “They only stayed a semester.”