By Teachers, For Teachers
There are two groups who have obvious reasons why they support trimming the school week to four days: Students and the people devising school budgets.
But as the classroom management approach has gained ground in several regions, the debate has gotten more complex, and advocates claim it has other subtle benefits, while skeptics -- including some teachers -- say it needs more study.
“Here it is just driven by our budgets,” says Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association, the biggest teacher’s union in a state where nearly half of the districts now have a four-day week. “I think it has been a mixed bag in terms of results -- and to a large degree we just don’t know what the outcomes are. But it certainly should be something we do with more care.”
She doesn’t entirely object to the classroom management concept, but fears it isn’t planned well enough and is being implemented most often in poorer, rural districts to save money.
This type of shortened week, which had been adopted by 560 districts in 25 states according to a National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) tally last summer, is typically undertaken to save money for schools and has most often been implemented in those rural school districts during economic downturns nationally or regionally. NCSL has found on average, savings range from 0.4% to 2.5% of a district’s overall budget.
Other districts have considered the move for a range of reasons – from brain science that says students might perform better to the opportunity it might present to include them in more out-of-class learning opportunities on the extra day out of class.
But Baca-Oehlert and others say that there are a number of concerns – from worries about child care and unattended children or teens, to a loss of steady time in the classroom which some teachers say causes students to lose track of the material teachers present before the three-day break.
Georgia Heyward, a research analyst who has been a prominent voice in the debate about the four-day week, says that there is generally a consensus that much more information about the change is needed to see the real impact it is having on students and find out if it is improving their outcomes.
“Sometimes we assume that no one is being harmed, but we aren’t really sure if we are offering the same level of service – and we need to gather more information about that,” she says. “In addition, it is important if we reboot the system this way that we consider how it can improve schools and create new ways to approach education.”
Heyward says she would like to see more state guidance about how four-day plans are developed and more planning and thought on the part of districts. She is also concerned about the impact of implementing the plans in bigger or urban districts.
For instance, she said, child care or transportation may be a significantly bigger issue in some districts where there are more single-parent families or less “Sense of community” where neighbors or community organizations are likely to provide help with occupying students who are out of regular classes that fourth day.
The research on student performance, she notes, has not been definitive.
A 2014 study in Montana used six years of data and found that while there were temporary increases in test scores, there were growing declines later for students in four-day systems. Heyward notes that two other reports showed very little difference, though one showed a decline in scores for students with the shorter week in class initially, then a leveling off. On the other hand, another study showed that a greater percentage of students were proficient in math and reading in schools with the new schedule, though those gains leveled off over time too.
“We really can’t explain the different results in these studies, but our interviews with superintendents found that how they implemented the four-day week varies widely between districts,” she says. “That probably accounts for the variation.”
Some states have cracked down on the practice, either establishing firm guidelines or halting it. In 2014 the Minnesota Department of Education required that seven districts with four-day weeks go back to a regular five-day schedule after they weren’t making adequate academic progress. Beginning this school year, it also is not accepting new applications for districts to start the practice. Stricter standards have also been established in Oklahoma and New Mexico, according to Heyward, and California legislators passed a bill that reverses the policy if districts don’t meet thresholds for student progress.
But there is still interest among school districts. Advocates say that even though some research shows cost savings are minimal, it is helpful for budgets. Districts say they can more easily recruit teachers for less and save money on utilities, transportation and building maintenance. Some evidence also suggests attendance improves and families appreciate it because they can meet weekday commitments such as doctors’ appointments. Schools and community organizations can offer special programs or service work, field trips or special testing, advocates say.
“Possible uses of the fifth day for supplementary and remedial instruction, dual-credit college courses, experimentation with online instruction, internships, and educational field trips are all plausible and could be productive,” Heyward has written. “Similarly, teachers might use the fifth day for real learning and problem solving. All of these things are happening in one community or another, but they are far from universal.”
The results are not in yet from the experiment by Colorado School District 27J near the Denver metro area, which announced that it would begin using a four-day week starting last fall. A number of school districts in the state have tried the shorter week, but with more than 17,000 students, it is by far the largest.
The district provided full-day child care on Mondays for students age 5 to 12 for a fee, the local Boys & Girls Club expanded its services, and other activities were planned in the school and the community, according to Baca-Oehlert. She says that should help, but she is nonetheless concerned that schools don’t know the results.
“It may be a good option to consider and it is great that Brighton (District 27J) has been able to put in place other supports. But that isn’t the case everywhere and we still don’t know the outcomes. These kids only get one shot at school. These are human lives. So we shouldn’t be saying ‘Let’s try this out and see how it goes.’”