Evidence suggests instructional time makes the difference
Four-day school week schedules are becoming an increasingly common experience for America’s rural youth. These schedules typically involve increasing the length of the school day four days per week and “dropping” the fifth day. In the spring before the COVID-19 pandemic, 662 districts were using the schedule across 24 states, an increase of over 600% since 1999.
During the pandemic, many additional schools in both rural and non-rural areas adopted alternative school schedules, such as the four-day school week. These schedules generally altered the amounts and proportions of synchronous (in-seat) and asynchronous (at-home) learning students received. School administrators have described the pandemic as a “catalyst” for necessary innovations to school schedules and in-seat learning time.
Most of these changes were unprecedented, and their effects on students’ learning and well-being beyond the pandemic remain largely unknown. However, emergent research on the four-day school week may allow us to better assess its effectiveness as a school model in post-pandemic educational policy.
Recent survey findings show that four-day school weeks have been adopted as a way to alleviate budgetary issues, attract teachers, and reduce student absences—issues that the pandemic exacerbated for many districts. Although conditions may be ripe for more schools to turn to such a model in the wake of the pandemic, the research suggests that most of these aims fail to be realized.
Here, we describe the key takeaways from this emerging body of evidence.
SHORTER WEEKS MAY ATTRACT TEACHERS, BUT DON’T EXPECT MAJOR COST SAVINGS OR ATTENDANCE GAINS
National and state-specific research finds minimal impacts of the four-day school week on overall cost savings, but it suggests that four-day school weeks may allow school districts greater resource flexibility in the wake of budget shortfalls. The four-day school week may also be used as a form of non-monetary compensation to facilitate instructional cost reductions, as research finds that teachers generally prefer it.
In terms of student attendance, the research to date finds minimal impacts on measures of recorded daily attendance. However, some educators reason that that the four-day week could improve attendance in more nuanced ways undetected by traditional measures of attendance. Most notably, the schedule could decrease the class time that rural students miss for lengthy travel to appointments or extracurricular activities by shifting many of these activities to the off-day.
MAINTAINING INSTRUCTIONAL TIME KEY FOR MITIGATING ACADEMIC HARM
A key concern surrounding the four-day school week is the impact on students’ academic progress. While the evidence regarding overall student achievement impacts is mixed, recent evidence has found primarily negative achievement impacts of four-day school weeks in Oklahoma and Oregon. This has led to a prevailing perception that four-day school weeks are bad for student achievement, a sentiment that was articulated in a recent Education Next piece on the Oregon study. However, the Oregon four-day school week experience is hardly the norm. A more nuanced take of the evidence would suggest that the effects on achievement may depend on whether instructional time stays mostly intact.
In the Oregon study, for example, the stark reductions in math and reading achievement were associated with reductions of three to four hours in weekly time in school. Recent national evidence also suggests that the schools where four-day weeks led to reductions in learning time see the most negative outcomes on student academic progress, with little to no impact on achievement among schools that maintain adequate learning time. Thus, structuring the four-day school week to maintain adequate learning time seems to be the key to avoiding student learning loss and presents a path forward for schools considering this schedule.