CORVALLIS, Ore. — In 1999, only 257 K-12 schools nationwide operated on a four-day school week. Twenty years later, that number has swelled to 1,607 schools, but there is no widespread understanding of why or how schools implement a four-day schedule.
A recent study by Oregon State University researchers aimed to understand both the varied reasons why schools choose to adopt a four-day week and how the schedule affects student learning outcomes and behavior.
“We hear in the news that schools have implemented this four-day school week, but we didn’t have any systematic evidence of the scope of implementation,” said lead author Paul Thompson, assistant professor of economics in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. “That’s the key focus of this paper — what’s the array of choices that schools might make when they think about switching to this policy, and trying to start thinking about best practices.”
Much of Thompson’s research focuses on the economics of education and how individuals and institutions change their behavior in response to new educational policies.
The four-day school study looked at 1,607 schools in 660 school districts across 24 states, gathering data from schools about their justification for making the schedule change, total instruction time for the school year, any enrichment activities offered on the off-day and test scores for certain grade levels.
Some schools turned to the four-day week as a cost-savings measure, among other budget cuts like staff and salary reductions, increased class sizes and reduced extracurricular activities. Thompson said those schools may use the four-day week as a non-monetary benefit to compensate teachers for reduced salary.
With budget cuts imminent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson anticipates that more schools may consider turning to four-day weeks to make up the shortfall.
When the schedule change is made for financial reasons, the study found, schools are less likely to offer any enrichment like tutoring or other services like school lunch on the fifth day, because that would cut into cost savings.
But many schools turn to the four-day week for logistical purposes, especially in rural areas. In these schools, cutting one instructional day a week does not save much money.
Oregon was one of nine states that allowed a four-day school week in 1999. In the 2018-2019 school year 137 Oregon schools were operating on that schedule, the fourth-highest number of any state in the country.
Nationwide, 90% of schools on the four-day schedule are in rural communities and have an average total district enrollment of 454 students.
Rural schools often cut the fifth day of the week because students are already missing so much class time for extracurriculars, such as commuting more than an hour each way to athletic events, Thompson said. Students may also ride the bus more than an hour each way just to get to school.
When the schedule change is not budget-dependent, schools were more likely to continue to offer some form of enrichment or instruction on the fifth day of the school week.
Researchers on this and previous studies have found mixed results, in terms of the schedule’s impact on student achievement. A 2015 paper showed positive effects of the four-day week on fourth- and fifth-grade math and reading skills in Colorado, but a 2019 paper from Thompson showed negative impacts on math and reading skills in third- through eighth-graders in Oregon.
From the current study, Thompson said it appears learning outcomes are more dependent on total instruction time. To help make up for the lost day each week, some four-day schools implement longer class days with earlier start times.
Nationwide, students in four-day schools attend school for an average of 1,150 hours per year, compared with 1,235 hours per year in five-day schools, the study found.
But it varies significantly between states. In Oregon, nearly 27% of all four-day schools logged fewer than 1,100 hours of instruction time, compared with only 6% of four-day schools in Colorado. Another recent study suggested Colorado’s increased instruction time yielded better student achievement.
With COVID-induced budget cuts, “We could see more states pop up with this schedule,” Thompson said. “The big takeaway is, if you’re going to do this, you want to think about what the pitfalls have been from other places that have instituted this.”
An upcoming paper will examine the impact of the four-day schedule on student health behaviors, nutritional habits, physical activity and risky behaviors like drug use and criminal activity.