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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Four-day school week worth a try

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: January 20, 2024, 6:02am

When it comes to education, parents are reluctant to offer their children as guinea pigs.

This is understandable. Experiments in education might lead to a better system down the road, but that doesn’t mean it will benefit my child now.

All of which provides some context for a change at Seton Catholic College Prep. The high school, which has about 270 students and sits just within the northern city limits of Vancouver, is adopting a four-day school week beginning in the fall.

This might be of minor interest to you, generating a philosophical discussion about the direction of American education. It is of vital interest to me, with my son being a freshman at Seton. And while there will be some drawbacks to a Tuesday-Friday school week, after attending a couple parent meetings with the principal and looking into the issue, it has become apparent that the change makes a lot of sense.

Of course, Seton did not invent the concept of a four-day school week. Reportedly, more than 1,600 school districts across 24 states have four-day weeks; that includes at least 10 districts in Washington and nearly one-third of the districts in Oregon.

Many of those districts have adopted the schedule because of budget constraints, rather than a belief it will improve educational outcomes. And that speaks to the gist of the issue: There is a difference between having a four-day school week and having a three-day weekend.

According to Seton officials, teachers still will work on Mondays; they can use those days for planning and professional development, and are expected to have office hours in the afternoon. Under a five-day school week, as anybody who has lived with a teacher can tell you, the workweek actually begins Sunday night.

As for students, Mondays are expected to be used for homework, meetings with teachers, doctor’s appointments, volunteer and employment opportunities, college visits and applications, and other high-minded activities. It would be naïve to think there won’t be some video games or TikTok postings thrown in, especially if the parents are at work, but the chance for self-structured productivity is there.

As Principal Robert Rusk told The Columbian: “We weren’t honoring Sunday as a day of rest to spend with family. Now, we can work on time management on Monday instead.”

All of which is what makes this experimental. And many an experiment in American education has been deemed a failure and quickly abandoned.

But the most interesting part of the Seton plan is that students will spend more time in class over the course of the school year. By eliminating most early-release days and extending the school day some 25 minutes, overall class time will expand.

Nationally, the impact of a four-day school week — as measured by standardized test scores — has been mixed. But a growing body of research suggests that class time is the key for academic purposes.

As Emily Morton of the American Institutes of Research wrote to The Journalist’s Resource: “I think too often the importance of instructional time for the impacts of the policy is missed. It’s pretty critical to the story that districts with longer days (who are possibly delivering equal or more instructional time to their students than they were on a five-day week) are not seeing the same negative impacts that districts with shorter days are seeing.”

There also is a difference between a private high school and a district-wide policy that affects students aged 6 to 18. A four-day week for elementary schools presents child care challenges and leaves parents desperate to engage youngsters in productive activities. A reasonably mature high school student, on the other hand, can be left to their own devices.

There are concerns, of course. Students will need to find midafternoon transportation to school for athletic practices or other activities, and the lure of Fortnite can be a powerful distraction from geometry homework.

But a four-day school week appears to be worth a try.