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The four-day school week: Research shows benefits and consequences

by Denise-Marie Ordway, The Journalist’s Resource

We updated this piece on the four-day school week, originally published in June 2018, to include new figures, research and other information on Sept. 6, 2023.

Just over 2,100 schools in 26 states have switched to a four-day school week, often in hopes of recruiting teachers, saving money and boosting student attendance, according to the most recent estimate from the Four-Day School Week policy research team at Oregon State University.

Small, rural schools facing teacher shortages have led the trend, choosing to take Mondays or Fridays off and giving teachers and students a three-day weekend every week. To make up for the lost day of instruction, school officials tack time onto the remaining four days.

In places where schools have made the change, school district leaders have marveled at the resulting spikes in applications from teachers and other job seekers.

“The number of teacher applications that we’ve received have gone up more than 4-fold,” Dale Herl, superintendent of the Independence, Missouri school district, told CBS News last month.

Independence, which serves about 14,000 students outside Kansas City, introduced the new schedule when classes there resumed last month. In all, 30% of Missouri school districts now have a four-day school week, The Kansas City Star reported recently.

Schools nationwide faced teacher shortages long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But vacancies grew as the virus, which has killed 1.1 million Americans to date, spread.

In the spring before the pandemic, a total of 662 public school districts used the schedule – up more than 600% since 1999, Paul Thompson and Emily Morton, leading researchers in this field, write in a 2021 essay for the Brookings Institution. That number climbed to 876 during the 2022-23 academic year, Thompson and Morton told The Journalist’s Resource in email messages.

Brent Maddin, executive director of the Next Education Workforce project at Arizona State University, told The New York Times the pandemic has made many teachers feel more undervalued.

“If we’re serious about recruiting people into the profession, and retaining people in the profession, in addition to things like compensation we need to be focused on the working conditions,” he told the Times.

Scholars are still trying to understand the impact of cutting the school week by one day. Most studies focus on a single state or group of states, so their findings cannot be generalized to all schools on a four-day schedule. The research to date indicates:

  • The amount of time students spend in class varies from state to state.
  • Some schools offer less instructional time during a four-day school week than they did during a five-day week.
  • There’s limited cost savings, considering employee salaries and benefits make up the bulk of school expenses. In a 2021 analysis, Thompson estimates schools save 1% to 2% by shortening the school week by a day.
  • The impact of the condensed schedule differs depending on a range of factors, including the number of hours schools operate and how they structure their daily schedules. Recent research generally finds small drops in student achievement.
  • Staff morale improved under a four-day school week.
  • High school bullying and fighting declined.

“For journalists looking for a definitive answer to [the question] ‘Are four-day school weeks a good or bad thing?’, I would caution that it is still too early to tell,” Thompson, an associate professor of economics who is part of Oregon State’s Four-Day School Week Policy research team, wrote to The Journalist’s Resource.

Both he and Morton urged journalists to explain that the amount of time schools dedicate to student learning makes a big difference.

“I think too often the importance of instructional time for the impacts of the policy is missed,” Morton, a researcher at the American Institutes of Research, wrote to JR. “It’s pretty critical to the story that districts with longer days (who are possibly delivering equal or more instructional time to their students than they were on a five-day week) are not seeing the same negative impacts that districts with shorter days are seeing.”

Keep reading to learn more about the research. We’ll update this collection periodically.

Impacts of the Four-Day School Week on Early Elementary Achievement

Paul N. Thompson; et al. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2nd Quarter 2023.

Summary: This study is the first to examine the four-day school week’s impact on elementary schools’ youngest students. Researchers looked at how children in Oregon who went to school four days a week in kindergarten later performed in math and English Language Arts when they reached the third grade. What they found: Overall, there were “minimal and non-significant differences” in the test scores of third-graders who attended kindergarten on a four-day schedule between 2014 and 2016 and third-graders who went to kindergarten on a five-day schedule during the same period.

When the researchers studied individual groups of students, though, they noticed small differences. For example, when they looked only at children who had scored highest on their pre-kindergarten assessments of letter sounds, letter names and early math skills, they learned that kids who went to kindergarten four days a week scored a little lower on third-grade tests than those who had gone to kindergarten five days a week.

The researchers write that they find no statistically significant evidence of detrimental four-day school week achievement impacts, and even some positive impacts” for minority students, lower-income students,  special education students, students enrolled in English as a Second Language programs and students who scored in the lower half on pre-kindergarten assessments.

There are multiple reasons why lower-achieving students might be less affected by school schedules than high achievers, the researchers point out. For example, higher-achieving students “may miss out on specialized instruction — such as gifted and enrichment activities — that they would have had time to receive under a five-day school schedule,” they write.

Effects of 4-Day School Weeks on Older Adolescents: Examining Impacts of the Schedule on Academic Achievement, Attendance, and Behavior in High School

Emily Morton. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, June 2022.

Summary: Oklahoma high schools saw less fighting and bullying among students after switching from a five-day-a-week schedule to a four-day schedule, this study finds. Fighting declined by 0.79 incidents per 100 students and bullying dropped by 0.65 incidents per 100 students.

The other types of student discipline problems examined, including weapons possession, vandalism and truancy, did not change, according to the analysis, based on a variety of student and school data collected through 2019 from the Oklahoma State Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics.

“Results indicate that 4-day school weeks decrease per-pupil bullying incidents by approximately 39% and per-pupil fighting incidents by approximately 31%,” writes the author, Emily Morton, a research scientist at NWEA, a nonprofit research organization formerly known as the Northwest Evaluation Association.

Morton did not investigate what caused the reduction in bullying and fighting. She did find that moving to a four-day schedule had “no detectable effect” on high school attendance or student scores on the ACT college-entrance exam.

Only a Matter of Time? The Role of Time in School on Four-Day School Week Achievement Impacts

Paul N. Thompson and Jason Ward. Economics of Education Review, February 2022.

Summary: Student test scores in math and language arts dipped at some schools that adopted a four-day schedule but did not change at others, according to this analysis of school schedule switches in 12 states.

Researchers discovered “small reductions” in test scores for students in grades 3 through 8 at schools offering what the researchers call “low time in school.” These schools operate an average of 29.95 hours during the four-day week. The decline in test scores is described in terms of standard deviation, not units of measurement such as points or percentages.

At schools offering “middle time in school” — an average of 31.03 hours over four days — test scores among kids in grades 3 through 8 did not change, write the researchers, Paul N. Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, and Jason Ward, an associate economist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

Scores also did not change at schools providing “high time in school,” or 32.14 hours over a four-day school week, on average.

When describing this paper’s findings, it’s inaccurate to say researchers found that test scores dropped as a result of schools adopting a four-day schedule. It is correct to say test scores dropped, on average, across the schools the researchers studied. But it’s worth noting the relationship between test scores and the four-day school week differs according to the average number of hours those schools operate each week.

For this analysis, researchers examined school districts in states that allowed four-day school weeks during the 2008-2009 academic year through the 2017-2018 academic years. They chose to focus on the 12 states where four-day school weeks were most common. The data they used came from the Stanford Educational Data Archive and “a proprietary, longitudinal, national database” that tracked the use of four-day school weeks from 2009 to 2018.

The researchers write that their findings “suggest that four-day school weeks that operate with adequate levels of time in school have no clear negative effect on achievement and, instead, that it is operating four-day school weeks in a low-time-in-school environment that should be cautioned against.”

Three Midwest Rural School Districts’ First Year Transition to the Four Day School Week

Jon Turner, Kim Finch and Ximena Uribe-Zarain. The Rural Educator, 2019.

Abstract: “The four-day school week is a concept that has been utilized in rural schools for decades to respond to budgetary shortfalls. There has been little peer-reviewed research on the four-day school week that has focused on the perception of parents who live in school districts that have recently switched to the four-day model. This study collects data from 584 parents in three rural Missouri school districts that have transitioned to the four-day school week within the last year. Quantitative statistical analysis identifies significant differences in the perceptions of parents classified by the age of children, special education identification, and free and reduced lunch status. Strong parental support for the four-day school week was identified in all demographic areas investigated; however, families with only elementary aged children and families with students receiving special education services were less supportive than other groups.”

Juvenile Crime and the Four-Day School Week

Stefanie Fischer and Daniel Argyle. Economics of Education Review, 2018.

Abstract: “We leverage the adoption of a four-day school week across schools within the jurisdiction of rural law enforcement agencies in Colorado to examine the causal link between school attendance and youth crime. Those affected by the policy attend school for the same number of hours each week as students on a typical five-day week; however, treated students do not attend school on Friday. This policy allows us to learn about two aspects of the school-crime relationship that have previously been unstudied: one, the effects of a frequent and permanent schedule change on short-term crime, and two, the impact that school attendance has on youth crime in rural areas. Our difference-in-difference estimates show that following policy adoption, agencies containing students on a four-day week experience about a 20 percent increase in juvenile criminal offenses, where the strongest effect is observed for property crime.”

Staff Perspectives of the Four-Day School Week: A New Analysis of Compressed School Schedules

Jon Turner, Kim Finch and Ximena Uribe-Zarian. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 2018.

Abstract: “The four-day school week is a concept that has been utilized in rural schools for decades to respond to budgetary shortfalls. There has been little peer-reviewed research on the four-day school week that has focused on the perception of staff that work in school districts that have recently switched to the four-day model. This study collects data from 136 faculty and staff members in three rural Missouri school districts that have transitioned to the four-day school week within the last year. Quantitative statistical analysis identifies strong support of the four-day school week model from both certified educational staff and classified support staff perspectives. All staff responded that the calendar change had improved staff morale, and certified staff responded that the four-day week had a positive impact on what is taught in classrooms and had increased academic quality. Qualitative analysis identifies staff suggestions for schools implementing the four-day school week including the importance of community outreach prior to implementation. No significant differences were identified between certified and classified staff perspectives. Strong staff support for the four-day school week was identified in all demographic areas investigated. Findings support conclusions made in research in business and government sectors that identify strong employee support of a compressed workweek across all work categories.”

The Economics of a Four-Day School Week: Community and Business Leaders’ Perspectives

Jon Turner, Kim Finch and Ximena Uribe-Zarian. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 2018.

Abstract: “The four-day school week is a concept that has been utilized in rural schools in the United States for decades and the number of schools moving to the four-day school week is growing. In many rural communities, the school district is the largest regional employer which provides a region with permanent, high paying jobs that support the local economy. This study collects data from 71 community and business leaders in three rural school districts that have transitioned to the four-day school week within the last year. Quantitative statistical analysis is used to investigate the perceptions of community and business leaders related to the economic impact upon their businesses and the community and the impact the four-day school week has had upon perception of quality of the school district. Significant differences were identified between community/business leaders that currently have no children in school as compared to community/business leaders with children currently enrolled in four-day school week schools. Overall, community/business leaders were evenly divided concerning the economic impact on their businesses and the community. Community/business leaders’ perceptions of the impact the four-day school week was also evenly divided concerning the impact on the quality of the school district. Slightly more negative opinions were identified related to the economic impact on the profitability of their personal businesses which may impact considerations by school leaders. Overall, community/business leaders were evenly divided when asked if they would prefer their school district return to the traditional five-day week school calendar.”

Impact of a 4-Day School Week on Student Academic Performance, Food Insecurity, and Youth Crime

Report from the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Office of Partner Engagement, 2017.

Summary: “A Health Impact Assessment (HIA) utilizes a variety of data sources and analytic methods to evaluate the consequences of proposed or implemented policy on health. A rapid (HIA) was chosen to research the impact of the four-day school week on youth. The shift to a four-day school week was a strategy employed by many school districts in Oklahoma to address an $878 million budget shortfall, subsequent budget cuts, and teacher shortages. The HIA aimed to assess the impact of the four-day school week on student academic performance, food insecurity, and juvenile crime … An extensive review of literature and stakeholder engagement on these topic areas was mostly inconclusive or did not reveal any clear-cut evidence to identify effects of the four-day school week on student outcomes — academic performance, food insecurity or juvenile crime. Moreover, there are many published articles about the pros and cons of the four-day school week, but a lack of comprehensive research is available on the practice.”

Does Shortening the School Week Impact Student Performance? Evidence from the Four-Day School Week

D. Mark Anderson and Mary Beth Walker. Education Finance and Policy, 2015.

Abstract: “School districts use a variety of policies to close budget gaps and stave off teacher layoffs and furloughs. More schools are implementing four-day school weeks to reduce overhead and transportation costs. The four-day week requires substantial schedule changes as schools must increase the length of their school day to meet minimum instructional hour requirements. Although some schools have indicated this policy eases financial pressures, it is unknown whether there is an impact on student outcomes. We use school-level data from Colorado to investigate the relationship between the four-day week and academic performance among elementary school students. Our results generally indicate a positive relationship between the four-day week and performance in reading and mathematics. These findings suggest there is little evidence that moving to a four-day week compromises student academic achievement. This research has policy relevance to the current U.S. education system, where many school districts must cut costs.”

Other resources

Looking for more research on public schools? Check out our other collections of research on student lunches, school uniforms, teacher salaries and teacher misconduct.

This article first appeared on The Journalist’s Resource and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.