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June 6, 2017

Does a four-day school week sacrifice learning in the interest of a balanced budget? Part II: Academic impact

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.






June 1, 2017

Does a four-day school week sacrifice learning in the interest of a balanced budget? Part I: Slim savings

The four-day schedule is not an entirely novel idea—first used in the 1930s, the system gained popularity in the 1970s as surging oil prices drove districts to seek alternative solutions to cut their growing transportation budgets. More recently, shifts in the definition of instructional time by many states toward instructional hours rather than instructional days has opened the door to the resurgence of the four-day week. This change grants districts the flexibility to implement a calendar with fewer, longer school days, generally adding about 45 minutes on to the end of the school day.

In the wake of the Great Recession, states continue to make deep cuts to education budgets, leaving already struggling communities to find innovative solutions. Today, about 150 districts in 21 states have adopted the calendar. A potential cost saver like the four-day week can be appealing under tight budgetary circumstances, but how much money does a four-day week really save? Does the four-day week hold up as a viable option for districts struggling with tight budgets?

2017-06-01_11-35-57Proponents of the four-day school week foresee significant savings, particularly in the areas of transportation, food service, and building operations. By eliminating these costs from one whole day of the usual five-day school week, districts predict a 20% savings in each area. However, each of these areas individually makes up a relatively small portion of a district’s overall budget. Cutting transportation completely for one day of the week, a commonly indicated source of potential savings in rural districts, leads to only a 0.85% savings to the overall budget.

The largest portion of the budget (approximately 60.82% on average) is dedicated to instruction, primarily made up of teacher salaries and benefits, which are not affected by a move to a four-day schedule. Despite the initial inclination of many proponents, teachers continue to provide the same number of instructional hours and thus receive the same salary and benefits. The largest portion of the budget, then, is not impacted by a shift to a four-day week.

In fact, estimates suggest that a four-day week brings a maximum potential savings of only about 5.43% to the overall district budget. Most districts that have already made the shift have seen much lower savings. A study out of Oklahoma, a state that has been making national headlines for its controversial use of the four-day week, recently found no evidence that districts that switched saved money at all.

While budgetary considerations have been the primary driver of the four-day week’s recent spike in popularity, these suggested savings appear to be unfounded. Despite these limited savings, districts continue to shift to a four-day schedule. What impact might this change have on students and staff? What considerations must districts weigh before making the change? Next week, we will examine the potential academic effects of changing to a four-day week.






March 13, 2017

Kentucky: School Choice for Whom?

The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently.  In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside).  If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state.  As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.

At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools.  Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role.  The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone.  In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity).  The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer.  This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted  and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.

KY

Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville.  JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity.  Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice.  Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity.  JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151.  The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students.  The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home.  JCPS analyzed H.B. 151­­­ and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts).  Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.

JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity.  By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151.  The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40.  Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students.  JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated.  The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan.  Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school.  This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.

We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement.  A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools.  Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools.  Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students.  However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns.  It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies.  Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.






February 21, 2017

Averages mask regional differences in school segregation

We recently released a report on school segregation in the U.S. While we think that following national trends are helpful, and that lessons can be learned from one region to another, we also acknowledge that segregation looks different in each region, state, and metropolitan area. So, even though racial balance overall has been improving over the past 10 years as an average of all metropolitan areas in the U.S., the reality is that it’s been getting better in about 65 percent of cities and getting worse in the other 35 percent. We should definitely be working to learn best practices from those who are improving student integration to apply to areas that are getting worse.

Brown v. Board of Education really addressed de jure segregation, or laws that required that black and white students attend different schools. These laws were on the books in 17 southern states at the time of the landmark 1954 court case. States didn’t truly begin to integrate schools until the late 1960s, as the courts enforced Brown v. Board, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1968 court case Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. As the graph below shows, the South saw the greatest decrease of black students in racially isolated schools of any region from 1968 to 1989, as they were the ones that originally had segregation laws that were overturned. Court orders were in place in many southern school districts through the 1980s, with a few still being in place today.

Regional Segregation 1

What should also be noted in this graph is that the Northeast has the highest rate of black students in isolated school settings. Some of this may be attributable to having smaller school districts, which allows for more sorting and separation of students of different races and less ability for school district leaders to truly integrate schools if they have little diversity within their borders. However, Maryland has one of the highest rates of isolated schools for black students, despite having large, county-wide districts (Maryland also has a high proportion of black students). It may also be due to large, segregated urban areas that have greater impacts on statewide segregation rates. For example, New York City public schools have very few white students, which means that black students are isolated, weighing heavily on racial isolation statistics for the entire state. Nearly two-thirds of black students in the state of New York attend schools that are less than 10 percent white, making New York the most isolating state for black students. Chicago has a similar impact for Illinois.

Of the largest 25 metropolitan areas, Chicago has the highest dissimilarity rate between black and white students; 79 percent of black students would have to move to a school with more white students in order to achieve complete racial balance (in which all schools have equal proportions of each student group).  While this, of course, is not practical, as families often live in segregated neighborhoods, it highlights the separation between students living in the same metropolitan area.

Regional Segregation 2

We can do better. We did do better, but we let gains in integration slide. School leaders need to start thinking innovatively across attendance zones and district boundaries to ensure that all students are exposed to a diverse set of peers and equal resources. That means having community support from parents who understand that diverse schools benefit all students.






February 7, 2017

School Improvement Grants: Why didn’t $7 billion change results for students?

Mathematica recently released a study of the federal program of Student Improvement Grants (SIG). Their findings? Schools receiving the extra funds showed no significant improvement over similar schools that did not participate. With a price tag of $7 billion (yes, with a “b”), this strikes many as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Interestingly, the study also found no evidence that the SIG schools actually had significantly higher per-pupil expenditures than similar schools that didn’t receive the grants, which may have contributed to the mediocre results.

SIG awarded up to $2 million annually to 1,400 schools, which was administered by states. The program began in the 2010-11 school year and continues through the end of the 2016-17 year. Starting in 2017-2018, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will allow states to use up to seven percent of their Title I allotments to improve the bottom five percent of schools. States may choose to dole out funds via formula or competitive grants, but districts are the ones responsible for using evidence-based practices to improve schools.

Under the old SIG rules, the federal government required schools to choose from one of these four turnaround models:

SIG 1

The new report analyzed transformation, turnaround, and restart models, and found no statistically significant effects for any of them. The authors did find positive, but not statistically significant, effects on math and reading scores for schools receiving the grant, but lower high school graduation rates. Critics of the new report have noted that the mathematical model chosen was not sensitive enough to detect small effects. The authors did find mixed effects each year, which many studies would have the power to find as significant, but due to the design, these remain insignificant. To give perspective of the magnitude of these effects, the effect of decreasing elementary class sizes by seven students is about 0.2 standard deviations; the effect of urban charter schools compared to their neighborhood schools after one year is 0.01 in math and -0.01 in reading (0.15 and 0.10 after four years). According to the Mathematica study, the results of SIG in 2012-2013 were 0.01 standard deviations in math and 0.08 standard deviations in reading, with a drop of in the graduation rate (note that SIG had a positive impact on the graduation rate in 2011-2012, which suggests that these results are not statistically significant, or could be zero). Not enough to conclude a positive effect, for sure, but not nothing, either.

 

SIG3

I’ll offer a couple of my own thoughts (based on research, of course) on why SIG didn’t have the success that was hoped for:

1. The authors found no evidence that the grant funds actually increased per-pupil spending. In government-speak, the funds may have supplanted other funding streams instead of supplementing them, even though the law states that federal funds are supposed to supplement other funds spent. They found that SIG schools spent about $245 more per student than similar non-SIG schools in 2011-2012, and only $100 more in 2012-2013 (again the results are not statistically significant, meaning that we can’t confidently say that the difference isn’t zero). Recent studies have shown that spending makes a difference in education, so this may help explain why we didn’t see a difference here.

2. Students in many priority schools (the bottom five percent of schools), which are the ones that qualified for SIG grants, may have had the option to transfer to higher-performing schools. While the report doesn’t address this, it seems that students with more involved parents and better academic achievement may have been more likely to utilize this offer, thus lowering the average scores of the schools they left behind. Students perform better when surrounded with higher-performing peers, which means that the lack of overall effect could have been influenced by the loss of higher achieving students.

3. Schools receiving SIG grants were high-poverty and high-minority. The average rate of students eligible for free-and-reduced price (FRL) lunches in the study group was 83 percent, with non-white students making up 91 percent of the school populations (as compared with the overall school population being about 50 percent FRL-eligible and 50 percent non-white). While the resources allocated through SIG to these schools should have made spending more equitable, schools may have still struggled with recruiting and retaining experienced, qualified teachers, which is often a challenge for high-poverty, high-minority schools. Research is clear that integrated schools have better outcomes for students than segregated schools. Yet, the reform strategies used under SIG (replacing school staff and/or converting to a charter school) did little to improve school integration.

Hopefully, states and districts will learn from these lessons and use school reforms that fundamentally change the practices of the school, not just a few personnel: increased funding, school integration, changes in instructional practices, meaningful teacher/principal mentoring and development, and/or wrap-around services for students in poverty or who have experienced trauma.






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