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News / Nation & World

4-day school weeks, gaining in popularity, face pushback from lawmakers

By David Montgomery, Stateline.org
Published: May 6, 2023, 8:13am

MINERAL WELLS, Texas — Desperate to fill open positions amid a statewide teacher shortage, school officials in this rural North Texas city of about 15,000 chose to follow the lead of neighboring districts by converting to a four-day school week at the start of the current student year.

“We decided if we can’t beat them, join them,” Superintendent John Kuhn said.

As the school year nears a close next month, Kuhn proclaimed the four-day week “a really good success,” which, among other positives, produced a surge of qualified teacher applicants that helped the district fill its vacancies. The seven-member school board has unanimously authorized the four-day schedule for the new school year that starts in August.

Nationwide, the number of four-day schools has increased by 600% over the past two decades, now numbering more than 1,600 in 24 states, according to research published in 2021. The schedule is most popular in small, rural districts. In Colorado, which has the largest percentage, 124 of the state’s 178 districts (70%) follow a four-day schedule.

Many four-day schools report higher test scores, fewer discipline problems and strong support from parents, teachers and staff. But amid the success stories, the idea is facing headwinds as emerging research points to academic declines and other problems.

School districts that go from five days to four typically make up at least some of the missing hours by adding time to the other days or extending the school year. But four-day schedules average only 148 school days per year, resulting in less time in school than the national average of 180 days per year for five-day schools.

Several states have imposed restrictions or bans on four-day schools. In Oklahoma, for example, a 2019 law requires school districts to seek waivers for four-day schools. Lawmakers in Missouri and Texas are pushing legislation to block the practice.

In another part of North Texas, the suburban Mesquite Independent School District, just east of Dallas, three months ago pulled back from what had seemed to be almost certain implementation of a four-day school week, after a comprehensive study raised fears of academic setbacks among fragile student populations.

The six-state analysis, published last summer by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, found lower student achievement in four-day schools, with larger negative effects among Hispanic students, as well as in those in towns and the suburbs, as compared to rural areas.

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Reviewing the relatively new findings at a board meeting in February, Mesquite officials dropped the four-day concept out of fear it would result in harmful consequences for students, 61% of whom are Hispanic.

“I took it off the table as the administration recommendation,” Superintendent Angel Rivera told Stateline. “I’m not going to experiment on kids.”

Lawmakers Push Back

Over the past several years, school districts in many states have rushed to embrace the four-day school week in hopes of easing a variety of problems, from staff vacancies to budget pressures, including those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the analysis published by the Annenberg Institute.

In some states, lawmakers are pushing back.

In Missouri, where more than 160 school districts (out of 518) will follow four-day schedules next year, a Senate-passed education bill carries an amendment by Democratic state Sen. Doug Beck that would prohibit four-day school weeks in cities with more than 30,000 residents, unless approved by district voters.

Beck, whose district includes the St. Louis area, told Stateline he believes Missouri should mandate five-day school weeks, calling the reduced schedule “a bad idea” and “a push to the bottom.”

In Texas, state Sen. Donna Campbell, Republican vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, also is pushing a bill that would require five-day weeks.

Campbell said in a statement that her bill has “spurred a robust public discussion regarding the relationship between students’ instructional time and academic achievement. In the future, I would like to see Texas collect data on student achievement comparing the various school week models.”

At a committee hearing on her bill, Campbell said the four-day schedule “has unintentionally caused hardships on working families and does not seem to improve student outcomes.” Research also suggests “that it seems to have some negative effects on children,” she said.

But school district officials who testified during the hearing were unanimous in their opposition to the bill, saying it would override local decision-making.

“We know what works for us,” said Paula Patterson, superintendent of the Houston-area Crosby Independent School District, which serves more than 6,000 students. When Crosby switches to a four-day schedule next fall, it will be the largest Texas district to do so.

“Four days with an exceptional teacher is much more effective and productive than five days with a less effective teacher.”

Recent Research

Scholarly research on four-day school weeks has been slow to emerge, leaving school districts to rely heavily on anecdotal conclusions.

“All of the research we have today is almost exclusively from the last three to four years,” said Emily Morton of Portland, Oregon-based NWEA, a nonprofit educational research organization formerly known as the Northwest Evaluation Association. Morton was one of the authors of the study published by the Annenberg Institute.

In addition to that analysis, there have been at least seven other major studies, including a 2021 study by the RAND Corporation and an Oregon analysis led by Paul Thompson, another coauthor of the analysis published by the Annenberg Institute. . Thompson’s Oregon study found that 11th graders on a four-day schedule performed worse on math tests than five-day students.

The findings, Morton said, are largely “a story of trade-offs,” showing an overall small to medium “negative effect” on achievement, though close to zero in rural districts, along with positives such as downturns in fighting and bullying.

Morton acknowledged, however, that the shortened week has been a morale booster in many districts, reducing time pressures, adding to family togetherness and softening academic stress. School district leaders say the reduced schedule has curtailed or eradicated vacancies and eased the workload on staff.

“The folks who do this schedule, they love it,” Morton said. “The communities are really positive about it.”

Though some schools have chosen Monday as the off-day, Friday is the new Saturday in most districts. However, many schools remain open on the expanded weekend for optional extra instruction or catch-up days for teachers.

Happy in Mineral Wells

Mineral Wells, named after medicinal waters that once made the community an acclaimed health resort, reflects the trend. School officials there posted a Facebook survey that revealed overwhelming support for the idea, leading the community to implement the plan at the start of the current 2022-2023 school year.

“The main purpose is recruitment and retention of teaching staff,” said Kuhn, the superintendent. “The quality of our applicant pool has really gotten a lot stronger. In the past, sometimes we would have a job posting where we’d only have four or five applicants. And now we’re getting 30 or 40.”

Teachers, staff and parents overwhelmingly support the four-day week, according to polls conducted within the last several weeks.

“There’s several good aspects to it,” Kuhn said. “Number one, we’ve heard a lot of feedback that it’s improved family time together.” Attendance and discipline have improved, he said, and transfers from other districts have boosted enrollment. Moreover, practice exams for the state’s academic readiness test have shown improved results over last year, Kuhn said, suggesting that the concept has heightened academic performance.

On one recent Friday, parents dropped off 31 younger students at Houston Elementary for about eight hours of optional instruction, added to address concerns over parents’ increased day care costs. A dozen 4- and 5-year-old children were gathered in the library, while nearby a teacher conducted a STEM class with second and third graders.

Meanwhile, several mothers, and in one case a great-grandmother, took their children to a city park to bask in a sunny morning. Donna Hartnagel was enjoying time with her 9-year-old son Cody and 7-year-old daughter Isabel.

“The only thing I’ve heard people complain about is because they have to work and that’s an extra day that they have to pay for,” she said. “It didn’t bother my schedule because I’m a stay-at-home mom.”

In the agricultural community of Woodson, an hour south of the Oklahoma state line, Superintendent Casey Adams said he and other school officials “did a lot of research” before making the change.

In his 167-student district, which he described as a “real traditional, conservative little school district,” the conversion to a four-day week has made his teachers much happier — and given students more time to prepare for agricultural competitions.

“In a small district, you wear a lot of hats, and you get worn out,” he said. “One teacher told me, ‘A four-day week allows me to be a good teacher, and a good mom.’”