The four-day work week is coming to schools, too

Back to (less) school.
Back to (less) school.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbrait
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For thousands of kids in the US, going back to school this year won’t be quite so painful. That’s because they will attend schools with four-day weeks.

Colorado district 27J, serving 18,000 kids, is the latest major school district to try and save money by cutting a day from its schedule—in this case, Mondays—while extending the other four days by 40 minutes each. The superintendent said saving would total about $1 million on busing, teacher salaries, and utilities, according to NPR. It is the 98th district in the state to move to the shorter schedule.

Many Western and Midwestern states, including Montana, Idaho, Missouri, and Nebraska, have adopted similar measures. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy group, 25 states currently have at least one district using a four-day school week, totaling 550 districts nationwide. Most of these districts are small and rural, but some are more urban.

Chris Fine, superintendent for Lathrop, Missouri, took his district to four days for the first time in the 2011-12 school year when it was cash-strapped after the financial crisis. It was not only effective, he told EdWeek, but even if he could go back to five days, he would not:

The improvement in our professional development opportunities has been a big plus. We increased the number of hours of instruction on the course of the year without increasing teacher time. That was a benefit, and we do believe that that is a good selling point for us in recruiting and attracting good teachers. Some of the other benefits far outweighed the financial benefits.

Research has raised doubts about whether the cost-saving measures really work. One study by the Oklahoma Department of Education found no conclusive evidence that the change actually saves money. It analyzed expenditures for 16 school districts that moved to a four-day school week during the 2011-2012 school year, comparing spending on utilities, food, transportation, and support staff from fiscal year 2008-2009 through 2015-2016. Nine districts spent more and seven spent less, with the average increase in spending of $8,542 more on support staff and $4,523 more on utilities, while spending $2,714 less on food and $1,971 less on transportation.

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a professor at the University of Washington, Bothell warns that the measures could also be harmful to student learning. “[A]re these districts adopting the shorter week without both considering other ways to save money and counting the risks to students?” he asked in a recent EdWeek piece which argued that a shorter week might hold students back:

Nobody seriously argues that less time in school will increase student learning. And here’s the rub: The hundreds of four-day-week districts in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, and Oregon are overwhelmingly rural districts, which, on average, fall below state means on student achievement, graduation rates, and college attendance. A policy that just holds student results to previous levels will not expand students’ college options or help communities attract new businesses and jobs.

Indeed, it’s not clear how the US, which lags behind many developed and developing countries in international tests, will catch up if American kids are spending less time in school than their peers abroad. Unfortunately, other attempts to save money seem equally grim. Hill suggests these: “reducing the time that school libraries are open, cutting vice principals in the high school, eliminating substitutes, and expecting administrators to cover for absent teachers.”

The four-day school week also has an obvious downside for working parents: That’s one more day they need to worry about child care. Clearly, Colorado got the memo: district 27J will offer child care on Mondays for $30 per child.