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The four-day work week is being put to the test in an unexpected place—rural schools

Reuters/Stephen Lam
A tech experiment comes to education.
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Nearly half the school districts in the US state of Montana are on a four-day week.

Children and teachers at these schools spend those days—usually Monday to Thursday—in the classroom, staying for a few extra hours in lieu of coming in on a fifth day. The idea is twofold: to trim operating budgets (cutting a day of school also cuts transportation, heating, janitorial, and clerical costs) and to give students time for out-of-the-classroom enrichment on that last weekday.

According to a new paper from the Brookings Institution, more and more educational leaders in the Mountain West region are signing onto the idea. Dozens of school districts in Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon have joined Montana’s experiment, which particularly attracts the US’s rural schools because of its cost-saving premise; federal funding is often scant for less-populated rural areas.

But what’s wonderful in theory is shaping up to be somewhat stressful in practice—which is the exact same problem that businesses with compressed work weeks are coming up against. The drawbacks of having a four-day work or school week usually include:

  • Health effects, such as fatigue and anxiety
  • Increased risk of employee—or student—burnout (particularly true for younger individuals, e.g. five-year-olds spending 8am to 4pm in class)
  • Physical strain due to lengthened work time (a study found that employees working more than 12 hours a day were at greater risk of an industrial accident or chronic disease later in life)
  • Loss of opportunity to spend time with one’s family during the week

And while the free fifth day is meant to make up for the increased burden on the other four days, that’s not been the case.

Utah, which implemented a four-day work week for all state employees in 2008, scrapped the idea in 2011 after research showed it led to neither significant savings nor boosts in productivity; many residents were unhappy that government employees weren’t available all five days of the week.

Similarly, Brookings’ recent paper argues that four-day school weeks sounds better than it is—because fixed teacher salaries and equipment expenditures end up piling on costs anyway, and because rural children need extra attention to catch up to the academic performance of their urban counterparts, not less.

All that is to say, what might work for amorphous, evolving companies like Google or Amazon doesn’t always translate to success in a field as heavily structured as education.

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