The research evidence is unclear. The first empirical study, published in 2015, found that Colorado students in four-day schools did much better. The number of fifth-grade students proficient in mathematics increased by more than 7 percentage points. The number of fourth-grade students proficient in reading increased by almost 4 percentage points. These results seemed to defy logic.
But now, seven newer studies generally find negative results — some tiny and some more substantial. A 2021 Oregon study, for example, calculated that the four-day week reduced one-sixth of a fifth-grade student’s usual gains in math, or about five to six weeks of school. Over many years, these losses can accumulate for students.
The most recent of the seven studies, a preliminary document published on the website from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute in August 2022, is a large, multi-state analysis and it found that four-day weeks hurt some students more than others.
Researchers from NWEA, led by Morton, and Oregon State University began by analyzing test scores from 12,000 students from 35 schools who had adopted four-day weeks in six states: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Like the most recent series of studies, they found that four-day weeks were not ideal for academic success on average. Four-day student test scores in grades three through eight declined slightly during the school year compared to the hundreds of thousands of students in those six states who continued to attend school five days a week. (City students were excluded from the analysis because no schools in the city had adopted the four-day week. Only rural, small town, and suburban students were included.)
The change seemed to hurt reading achievement more than math achievement. It was surprising. Reading is easier to do at home while math is a subject that students learn and practice mainly in school. During pandemic school closures and remote learning, for example, math scores have generally suffered more than reading.
The researchers focused on rural students. Rural schools accounted for seven out of 10 schools in the four-day program in this study. The types of students in the rural communities were also different. They tended to be poorer than in small towns and suburbs, and rural students’ test scores were lower. In the six Midwestern and Western states in this study, the proportion of Native American and Hispanic students was higher in rural areas than in small towns and suburbs.
When the researchers compared rural students who attended four-day schools with rural students who attended traditional five-day schools, completely ignoring students from small towns and suburbs, the results suddenly changed. The four-day rural students generally learned as much as the five-day rural students. Statistically, the test scores of both groups increased by about the same amount each year.
In contrast, students from small towns and suburbs who switched to four-day weeks fared significantly worse than other students in the state. Although it’s less common for schools in small towns and suburbs to move to four days — they make up only 30% of four-day schools — their students really seemed to be harmed. For example, a quarter of the usual achievement gains that fifth-graders typically make in a year are gone.
The distinctions that the US Census Bureau makes between a rural area and a small town are quite technical. I’m thinking of a small town as far away from a metropolitan area, but with some commerce and more people than a rural area would have.
This quantitative study of test scores does not explain why students in rural schools do better on just four days than students in small towns. NWEA’s Morton, the lead author, has long studied four-day school weeks and conducted a earlier study from 2022 in rural Oklahomawhere she found no academic sanction for the shorter week.
One possible explanation, Morton says, is sports. Many rural athletes and young student fans leave school early on Fridays or skip school altogether because of the great distances to travel to away games. Indeed, many five-day students receive only four days of instruction in rural America.
“In one district we spoke to, half the kids would be out for football on Friday,” Morton said. “They wouldn’t really have math on Fridays, because how can you teach with only half the class?” So it affects everyone. »
Absences for football games, which are considered part of the school, are often “excused”. Official records do not reveal that attendance rates are better at four-day schools, because many of the Friday classes that five-day students skip are not documented in attendance data.
Another possible explanation is education. The four-day work week is a attractive job advantage in rural America that can attract better teachers.
“It’s harder for rural districts to have highly qualified or honest teachers, sometimes to have period teachers, in their buildings and retain them than it is for cities or suburban districts,” Morton said. “It’s all anecdotal, but they say in interviews that the teachers are happier. They like to spend more time with their own children. It gives them time to do things they couldn’t do otherwise.
According to this theory, four-day schools can facilitate the hiring of better teachers, who could accomplish in four days what a less qualified teacher accomplishes in five days.
Four-day weeks aren’t necessarily better, but five-day weeks have their own downsides in rural America: hidden absences, skipped classes, and inferior teachers.
So what to do with all of this? Morton says there’s reason to think four-day weeks work better in rural America than elsewhere, but she wouldn’t recommend it wholeheartedly. Hispanic students, who accounted for one in six rural students in this study, suffered significantly more from four-day weeks than white students. (Native American students, who accounted for one in 10 rural students, did relatively better with the four-day week.)
Morton also worries that rural students will ultimately be harmed academically because of the shorter week. In her calculations, she detected clues that even four-day pupils in rural schools might learn slightly less than five-day pupils, but the difference was not statistically significant. A disadvantage of a four-day education could be detected in a larger study with more students.
“We don’t want to say ‘it doesn’t hurt the kids’ when it might actually hurt the kids a bit,” Morton said. “Another thing that could happen is that it could hurt the kids more over time. We may not have seen it long enough.
For schools considering a four-day week, timing is important. Some schools have been more successful at preserving instructional time, reallocating hours across four longer days, Morton told me. Others struggled to protect every minute of math and reading instruction. Longer hours can also test young children’s attention spans. It’s a compromise.
Historically, schools have shortened school weeks to cut costs. This was particularly needed in rural communities, which were not only affected by declining tax revenues after the 2008 recession, but continued to experience budget cuts to education due to depopulation and declining enrollment. of students.
However, the biggest surprise to me in this research review is how tiny cost savings are: 1 to 2 percent. It saves money by not running the heat or the buses one day a week, but the biggest expense, teachers’ salaries, remains the same.
The four-day week may ultimately be a popular policy, but not particularly good for public coffers or learning.