Four-day school weeks are rapidly expanding in rural areas across the U.S. As of 2019, over 650 districts across 24 states are using this schedule — a 600% increase since 1999. The schedule is particularly popular in rural Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon. As this option grows in popularity, state leaders are eager to learn about the impacts on students and schools.
Evidence and Outcomes
Districts that switch to four-day school weeks generally do so to cut costs on transportation, operations and support staff. In the last few years, improving teacher recruitment and retention has become another commonly cited reason. The communities that have adopted the schedule overwhelmingly prefer it to a five-day week and very few districts are switching back. Teachers, families and students prefer it because they think it increases teacher prep and family time, improves student attendance, behavior and school climate, and doesn’t impact academics.
However, there is little evidence confirming these benefits. For cost savings, districts reduce spending by only about 2% or about $57,000 on average. This amount may be meaningful for daily operations in some districts, but if districts are hoping for a fiscal game-changer, they may be disappointed.
Otherwise, there is not yet any clear evidence on the impacts on teacher recruitment and retention or performance. There are also no differences in attendance rates, and findings on student behavior and school climate are mixed. While in-school bullying and fighting rates decrease, there are no differences in school climate ratings and juvenile crime rates increase outside of school.
Moreover, research shows the impacts on achievement depend on the characteristics of the schedule and the district. While average effects on test scores tend to be negative and small in both math and reading, not all districts experience this same impact. In districts that extend school days to eight or more hours per day, the effect on student test scores is negligible. Unfortunately, in districts that have school days shorter than eight hours, students are progressing significantly less quickly than their peers attending school five days a week.
Separate studies find that district rurality also matters for the schedule’s impacts on achievement. Districts in rural areas see less or no impact on test scores, whereas districts located in towns or suburbs that adopt the four-day week experience larger negative effects.
The Role of State Policymakers
Concerned about negative academic impacts, several states are currently debating putting a stop to the trend. In Missouri and Texas, legislators recently proposed mandating a minimum number of school days that would functionally end four-day school weeks in their states. Oklahoma passed legislation in 2019 that requires districts to apply for a waiver and meet certain requirements to use a four-day week. Alternatively, New Mexico placed a moratorium on new adoptions of the schedule to further research its impacts on students.
Nevertheless, in most states, four-day weeks are likely here to stay. The schedule is so popular in some communities that even increasing the mandated number of total school days may not result in districts switching back to a five-day week. In Oklahoma, for example, some districts that did not qualify for a waiver are offering virtual Fridays or extending the school year to stay on a four-day week.
As legislative debates continue and adoption increases, state leaders can use the existing evidence to establish policy that protects against the potential negative effects on student achievement. More specifically, state leaders can consider ways to monitor instructional time, achievement and other relevant outcomes by:
1. Auditing annual instructional minutes in each subject and requiring that four-day districts provide as much or more learning time in core subjects as five-day week districts.
2. Monitoring student achievement and other relevant outcomes in each four-day week district. States can compare the district’s progress to their own previous data (from before the switch) and to the progress of otherwise similar five-day week districts.
As four-day school weeks reach increasing numbers of students across the U.S., monitoring the implementation and outcomes is a critical step toward ensuring all students have equal opportunities for academic success.