Is a four-day school week a bad idea?
The answer matters because hundreds of thousands of students at more than 1,600 schools across 24 states were heading to school only four times a week by the spring of 2019, according to one estimate. The number of four-day schools had exploded by more than 600 percent from 20 years earlier in 1999, when only about 250 schools had four-day weeks. That tally could be even larger today because more schools switched to a four-day schedule during the pandemic.
Although the switch was initially seen as a cost-saving measure, educators have quickly learned that longer weekends are immensely popular with families, especially in rural communities where the truncated school week is most common.
“We know that kids love it and so do parents and teachers,” said Emily Morton, a researcher at NWEA, a nonprofit assessment company, who has studied four-day school weeks around the country. “There are crazy high approval ratings for this policy.” Eighty-five percent of parents and, perhaps unsurprisingly, 95 percent of kids said they would choose to stay on a four-day school week, according to a RAND survey published in 2021.
But over the course of a typical 36-week school year, a four-day week means 36 fewer days of school. Many policymakers lament the downsizing of education, worried that students may learn less. Legislators in New Mexico are debating whether to crackdown on the schedule switch. Oklahoma passed a law to restrain the move to four-day weeks but delayed putting it into effect. Today, when many education advocates want to expand learning time to help kids recover academically from the pandemic, the four-day week would seem to be a move in the wrong direction.
The research evidence isn’t clear. The first empirical study, published in 2015, found that Colorado students in four-day schools did a lot better. The number of fifth grade students who were proficient in math rose by more than 7 percentage points. The number of fourth grade students who were proficient in reading rose by nearly 4 percentage points. Those results seemed to defy logic.
But now seven newer studies generally find negative results – some tiny and some more substantial. One 2021 study in Oregon, for example, calculated that the four-day week shaved off one-sixth of the usual gains that a fifth grader makes in math, equal to about five to six weeks of school. Over many years, those losses can add up for students.
The most recent of the seven studies, a preliminary paper posted on the website of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in August 2022, is a large multi-state analysis and it found four-day weeks harmed some students more than others.
Researchers at NWEA, led by Morton, and at Oregon State University began by analyzing the test scores of 12,000 students at 35 schools that had adopted four-day weeks in six states: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Like the more recent crop of studies, they found that four-day weeks weren’t great for academic achievement on average. The test scores of four-day students in grades three through eight grew slightly less during the school year compared to hundreds of thousands of students in those six states who continued to go to school five days a week. (City students were excluded from the analysis because no city schools had adopted four-day weeks. Only rural, small town and suburban students were included.)
The switch seemed to hurt reading achievement more than math achievement. That was surprising. Reading is easier to do at home while math is a subject that students primarily learn and practice in school. During pandemic school closures and remote learning, for example, math achievement generally suffered more than reading.
The researchers focused on rural students. Rural schools accounted for seven out of 10 schools on the four-day schedule in this study. The types of students in rural communities were also different. They tended to be poorer than in small towns and suburbs and the rural students’ test scores were lower. In the six midwestern and western states in this study, the share of Native American and Hispanic students was higher in rural areas than in small towns and suburbs.
When researchers compared rural students who attended four-day schools with rural students who attended traditional five-day schools, ignoring small town and suburban students altogether, the results suddenly changed. Rural four-day students generally learned as much as rural five-day day students. Statistically, both groups’ test scores rose by about the same amount every year.
By contrast, small town and suburban students who switched to four-day weeks were far worse off than other students in the state. Though it’s less common for small town and suburban schools to switch to four-days – they constitute only 30 percent of the four-day schools – their students really seemed to be harmed. For example, a quarter of the usual achievement gains that fifth graders typically make in a year disappeared.
The distinctions that the U.S. Census Bureau makes between a rural area and a small town are quite technical. I think of a small town as far from a metropolitan area, but with a bit of commerce and more people than a rural area would have.
This quantitative study of test scores does not explain why students at rural schools are faring better with only four days than students in small towns. NWEA’s Morton, the lead author, has long been studying four-day school weeks and conducted an earlier 2022 study in rural Oklahoma, where she found no academic penalty for the shorter week.
One possible explanation, Morton says, is sports. Many rural athletes and young student fans leave school early on Fridays or skip school altogether because of the great distances to travel to away games. In effect, many five-day students are only getting four-days of instruction in rural America.
“One district we talked to, half the kids would be out on Friday for football,” said Morton. “They would not really have math on Friday, because how can you teach with only half the classroom? So it’s affecting everyone.”
Absences for football games, considered to be part of school, are often “excused.” Official records don’t reveal that attendance rates are any better at four-day schools because many of the Friday classes that five-day students skip aren’t documented in the attendance data.
Another possible explanation is teaching. The four-day work week is an attractive work perk in rural America that may lure better teachers.
“It is harder for rural districts to get teachers that are highly qualified or honestly, sometimes to get teachers period, into their buildings and to retain them than it is for town or suburban districts,” said Morton. “All of this is anecdotal, but they’re saying in interviews that teachers are happier. They like spending more time with their own children. It gives them time to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
By this theory, four-day schools may make it easier to hire better teachers, who could accomplish in four days what a less skilled teacher accomplishes in five days.
Four-day weeks are not necessarily better, but five-day weeks have their own drawbacks in rural America: hidden absences, skipped lessons and lower quality teachers.
So what to make of it all? Morton says there are reasons to think that four-day weeks are working better in rural America than elsewhere, but she wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Hispanic students, who accounted for one out of every six rural students in this study, suffered much more from four-day weeks than white students did. (Native American students, who made up one of every 10 rural students, did relatively better with the four-day week.)
Morton is also worried that rural students may be ultimately harmed academically from the shorter week. In her calculations, she detected hints that even four-day students in rural schools might be learning slightly less than five-day students, but the difference was not statistically significant. A downside to a four-day education could be detected in a larger study with more students.
“We don’t want to say ‘it doesn’t hurt kids’ when it might actually be hurting kids a little bit,” said Morton. “Another thing that could be happening is it could hurt kids more over time. It could be that we haven’t observed it for long enough.”
For schools that are considering a four-day week, the schedule matters. Some schools have been better at preserving instructional time, reallocating the hours across four longer days, Morton told me. Others have struggled to protect every minute of math and reading instruction. Longer hours can also tax young children’s attention spans. It’s a tradeoff.
Historically, schools have shortened school weeks for cost savings. That’s been especially needed in rural communities, which were not only hit with declining tax revenues after the 2008 recession, but continued to suffer education budget cuts because of depopulation and declining student enrollment.
However, the biggest surprise to me in this review of the research is how tiny the cost savings are: 1 to 2 percent. It does save some money not to run the heat or buses one day a week, but the largest expenses, teacher salaries, stay the same.
The four-day week may ultimately be a popular policy, but not one that’s particularly great for public coffers or learning.
This story about a four-day school week was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.