This week, we revisit our two-part series on the increasingly popular four-day school week. Adopted as a cost-cutting measure in nearly 150 districts across the country, this schedule has been shown to produce limited savings. What are the academic effects of such a change? How does a four-day school week change classroom learning? How might students use their “free” day?
Parents and educators have expressed concerns about the academic viability of a four-day school week in most districts where the switch has been suggested. However, thus far, any evidence of students’ academic performance in four-day districts is limited and mixed. A recent study found evidence of slightly higher scores in mathematics for students on a four-day schedule than those on a five-day schedule , however this is certainly not part of a broader pattern. Just a few years prior, one study found “little difference” in achievement between the two schedules, while another found slightly higher achievement in students on the five-day schedule. Evidence of any academic benefit or detriment to students is inconclusive at this time and cannot yet be used to make a decision about the use of a four-day schedule.
Academically, we know very little about the effect of a four-day school week. Some proponents suggest, however, that there may be other potential benefits to students and staff from the shift. Absenteeism may be reduced for both students and staff, particularly in rural areas, as the “free” fifth day may be used to schedule appointments that would otherwise create time missed from school. Teachers may be able to use the increased time in the daily schedule to implement new teaching methods, and may use the fifth day for planning and collaboration. Students may use the fifth day for enrichment activities, remediation, or class preparation. Proponents suggest that the four-day week brings benefits to students and teachers by allowing for greater flexibility and creativity with the use of the school day, which may have a positive impact on student learning.
Unfortunately, these potential benefits come with detrimental drawbacks. Teachers and parents both voice the concern that five days of learning may not effectively be consolidated into four. Fewer, longer days may be particularly difficult for younger students who may become fatigued and unfocused by the end of the day. While absenteeism may be reduced, any student who is absent for a single day misses a larger portion of the week’s material than a student who is absent for one day of a five-day schedule. For many districts making this switch, a large portion of the students may be receiving free- and reduced-price lunch and breakfast. By eliminating one day of the school week, schools push the responsibility of providing one or two extra meals onto already struggling families. In some communities with four-day school weeks, food banks have had to step in to fill this gap in students’ nutrition. The extra “free” day created by a four-day calendar also raises the question of how students spend this increased time out of school, and how that may vary across socioeconomic groups. Families with more resources may be more able to pursue enrichment activities for their child, whereas families with fewer resources, already stretched thin, may be required to seek out alternative day care or even leave older children unsupervised. There is some evidence that moving to a four-day school schedule may even increase youth criminality as older students left unsupervised fill their time with illegal activity. Each of these unintended consequences may have long-term impacts on students’ academic achievement that should be considered and accounted for before shifting to a four-day schedule.
We have reached the end of our two-part series on the four-day week. Though the switch continues to gain popularity due to tight budgets, we know very little about its effects on student learning outcomes, particularly regarding longer-term indicators like college attendance and career success. As this schedule gains popularity as a method to cut budgets in districts across the nation, we will almost certainly gain a more conclusive understanding of its implications. As of now, there is little support for the theory of large potential savings, current evidence on academic success is incomplete, and there remain questions of potentially negative implications for students both inside and outside of the classroom.