Can schools switch to a 4-day week without leaving students behind?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In response to a nationwide teacher shortage, a growing number of schools across the country are shifting to a four-day school week, in hopes that the shorter schedule will allow them to attract new employees and help keep the ones they already have.

“It's almost like being on a hamster wheel; you just keep going going going, and you never get a chance to get off and take a breath,” Eugene Blalock, superintendent of a small Ohio district that recently made the switch, told NBC’s “Today” show earlier this month.

The concept of a four-day school week has been around for decades, but it’s become much more common in recent years. In 2019, there were an estimated 1,600 U.S. schools — mostly in rural areas of the country — using a truncated schedule, up from just 250 schools 20 years earlier. The trend has accelerated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which left schools scrambling amid widespread shutdowns, while also making them more aware of alternatives to traditional education structures.

The vast majority of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools are still on a schedule of Monday through Friday. In fact, more than half of states set a minimum number of school days, which makes a four-day week essentially impossible. But nationwide figures underrepresent how prominent the approach has become in certain parts of the country. As of last month, at least 59 districts in Texas had made the change. More than a quarter of school districts in Missouri and almost half of all districts in Idaho use a four-day schedule.

Why there’s debate

Proponents of the four-day school week say that while it may not be the right option in many places, the model gives certain schools that would otherwise struggle to attract top teaching candidates a leg up in meeting their staffing needs. There’s some evidence to suggest that the shorter schedule can make schools more attractive to applicants and reduce burnout among educators, by giving them a chance to use an extra day to handle the administrative duties that often bleed into what should be their personal time. In surveys, parents and students also strongly endorse the shorter week. “No one wants to go back,” one superintendent told EdSource. “There would be a riot.”

But critics say that those potential positives carry a big cost for students. While research into the practice is relatively limited, the most recent studies suggest that the four-day school week may lead to significant learning losses that compound over time. Even though most schools extend the school day to cover for at least some of the lost time, the four-day week nearly always means fewer hours of instruction and less academic growth. There are also major concerns about the practical impact of a shorter week, particularly for working parents who suddenly have to account for an extra day of childcare.

Others say the four-day school week, even if it does have marginal benefits in some circumstances, is ultimately a small adjustment that does nothing to address the funding shortfalls and cultural pressures that are the real reasons why American schools struggle.

What’s next

As the four-day school week becomes more popular, early signs of a backlash are also starting to emerge. In recent weeks, lawmakers in Texas and Missouri have proposed legislation that would mandate five days of school per week. It’s not clear if either of those bills will become law in their respective states.


Shorter weeks do help struggling schools attract talented 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. 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.” — Emily Morton, education researcher, to Hechinger Report

Teachers need better pay and more respect, not poorly thought out scheduling tweaks

“A four-day school week is a gimmick, not much different from the used car salesman putting a new paint job on a clunker with a bad transmission. … A better solution is to pay teachers better, respect the profession and stop trying to restrict instruction.” — Editorial, Kansas City Star

In the right circumstance, four-day weeks can bring big benefits

“Are Four Day School Weeks Better for Schools? That’s a tough question to answer. School districts have a number of moving parts, and the ramifications differ for each. Teachers, like any workers, may benefit from an extra day off — improved morale and work-life balance are generally seen in four-day workweek scenarios. … New teachers might be encouraged to work in more non-traditional environments like rural districts or tribal schools if a four-day week is part of the package.” — Kristi Pahr, Fatherly

The four-day week is a short-term solution that carries serious long-term consequences

“The four-day school week does solve the teacher shortage for rural districts that are using it, at least in the short term. But then there's the question of the academic ramifications, which may end up being significant as the years go on in these places. And the overall project in the school system is to educate children. So if we're not doing that, then we're not accomplishing our goal.” — Ben Chapman, Wall Street Journal

With the right plan in place, shorter weeks really can solve teacher burnout

“Really leveraging the four-day workweek means leveraging that extra day off, and it doesn’t have to be a full day off. But giving teachers time to unwind, giving teachers time to plan for the upcoming week, on their own terms on their own time schedule, that’s what could be really effective.” — Seth Gershenson, public policy researcher, to The Hill

We should trust teachers, parents and students who say the that 4-day week is working for them

“Do the benefits of the condensed week outweigh the costs? They appear to in the western U.S., where the schedule has been adopted in many rural communities. In addition, many administrators, teachers, parents and students give it two thumbs up while families say they highly value the extra time the four-day school week allows them to spend together.” — Wendy Troxel, Los Angeles Times

We shouldn’t build school strategies around adults’ preferences

“The happiness of adults who believe they are saving precious time and money, even when they are probably not, still seems to be the driving force for embracing four-day school weeks. When we shift our focus away from perception and toward hard evidence, that shiny picture of the four-day week model begins to lose definition.” — Jeff Murray, Fordham Institute

Less time in school will make it even harder for kids to recover from pandemic learning loss

“The trend toward four-day weeks will only make it harder to recover the half-year in learning that students lost, on average, during the pandemic — leaving the country poorer, less competitive and more unequal.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

Shorter school weeks place an extra burden on working parents

“Shortened school weeks can cause headaches for parents, from child care burdens to transportation problems. Many low-income families rely on schools to provide breakfast and lunch.” — Alia Wong, USA Today

The harm caused by missed class time becomes more severe year after year

“We found that students in four-day school week districts fell behind a little every year. Though these changes were small, they accumulated. We estimate that after eight years, the damage to student achievement will be about equal that caused, according to some estimates, by the pandemic. The potential long-term learning deficit in student achievement from the four-day school week is, our findings suggest, not trivial.” — Christopher Doss, Andrea Phillips and Rebecca Kilburn, The 74

Total time spent learning, not the number of days, is what matters most

“Schools that drop three or four hours a week out of their students’ time in school, those are the places that we see those big drops (in grades). In districts that have maintained instructional time we don’t see much impact.” — Paul Thompson, education researcher, to EdSource

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images