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The four-day school week: why less really is more

As soon as next year, Eatonville High School could be running on a four-day week Credit: Eatonville School District

Crosscut recently reported on the Eatonville School District’s  consideration of a four-day school week, which is already being used by two rural school districts with fewer than 150 students in Eastern Washington. During this legislative session, Sen. Randi Becker R-Eatonville, proposed a bill that would allow 20 school districts of up to 2,200 students to use the four-day school week. Here, Don Kordosky, superintendent of Oregon’s Oakridge School District, shares his personal experience and insights on making the switch.

When considering the switch from a five-day school week to a four-day school week, one need only recall that classic saying: “Less is more.”

As superintendent of Oakridge School District in Oregon, I learned this through personal experience when my schools made the switch. Initially, I was against the idea. How could a four-day week possibly be in the best interest of students? But after doing the research and seeing the benefits firsthand, I became a complete supporter.

The positives of the four-day week far outweigh the negatives, and the negatives can all be alleviated through well-thought-out strategies. The parents of our students, the staff, the school board, and the entire community of Oakridge reviewed the four-day week for an entire year prior to implementation. Since implementation I have become a four-day week advocate because of all the positive attributes including: better student academic performance, increased teacher vitality, increased student engagement, decreased student discipline problems, and an improvement to the overall culture of excellence for the district.

Most school districts originally begin a review of the four-day school week as a strategy to address financial shortfalls. (Mine did not.) By trimming one day off the week, a school can save in bus services, cafeteria, and facilities costs. This can be especially crucial during state budget shortfalls, where K-12 funding can be in danger of cuts, and even more so for rural school districts, which must run their schools on a minimal budget. But not all school districts go to a four-day week because of money, and certainly it is not the only way a school can benefit from the change.

The four-day week is not for all districts, and there are negative attributes that need to have alleviation strategies in place prior to implementation. Negative attributes include parent fears of not being able to find child care on Fridays, fatigue for students that have to attend school for longer days, and decreases in compensation for employees who lose hours.

An example of an alleviation strategy for the child care concern is the offering of Red Cross Childcare First Aid certification classes for high school students. These students then became available for parents who could not find relatives or other child care on Fridays. Another strategy is offering extra duty employment for bus drivers, cooks, and custodians, who all lose significant hours. In our district we made it a practice to offer all paid athletic supervision and activity duties to the employees who lost work time prior to other employees. Regardless of the negative consequence associated with the four-day week, there are strategies to alleviate the negative impact on students, families and staff.

Of note, many parents have found that eliminating the large number of half-days for students that plague five-day weeks — such as teacher work days, curriculum days, grading days, inservice days, etc. — has made finding childcare easier. With the four-day week, teachers can do their non-teaching activities on the day off, and therefore schools do not have to send children home at awkward and inconsistent times.

However, what I have found is that most common four-day school week objections are derived more from a fear of change (and a indeed a reasonable concern) rather than empirical study. When scrutinized, these objections are both addressed and debunked by the switch. To demonstrate that point, here are four reasons why the four-day school week is an improvement to the five-day week.

Teacher and student attendance increases. Teachers are the key to student learning, and having the regular classroom teacher in the room instead of a substitute teacher is better for kids. Because teachers are able to schedule meetings, doctor’s appointments and other possible conflicts with their teaching schedule on the extra day off, teachers are better able to provide a consistency for students. In Oakridge, the number of available work hours missed by teachers decreased significantly (21.8%) after the move to a four-day school week.

Student attendance typically increases, too. Most districts that implement a four-day week see substantial improvement in attendance at the high school level per available instructional hours (they spend more time learning, but less days at school). Attendance in some schools increased 3% as measured against available instructional hours.

Contrary to fears, instructional time for students can increase from what it was before if it is the wish of the school district. By subtracting non-teaching activities from Fridays (lunch time, passing periods, transportation time, recess) and adding those paid teacher work hours to instructional hours Monday-Thursday, the amount of paid teacher time that is allocated to instruction increases. Each school day is comprised of many activities that have no direct positive correlation to student academic achievement. The time we pay teachers when they are not teaching includes before school starts (usually about 30 minutes), the time that society pays teachers after school (usually 45 minutes), passing periods (typically six passing periods of five minutes each equals 30 minutes). All of this “non-instructional time” on Fridays is eliminated and that time can be changed to instructional time on the other remaining four days. Also, the flexibility of the four-day week allows it to work around national holidays, so even if a Monday needs to be taken off — say, for Labor Day — students can still go to school for four days (Monday-Friday).

The four-day school week offers four days of instruction every week, not the inconsistency of the five-day week which often has only three, three and one-half, or four days of student instruction. This is one of the keys to the four-day week:  Instead of sending kids home so that teachers can do non-instructional duties you bring teachers in on Fridays to complete non-instructional tasks!

On the four-day week, student discipline decreases and student engagement increases. The commonly assumed reason for the decrease in student discipline is that students are more actively engaged in more strenuous and rigorous classes than on a five-day week. Keep in mind that student seat time typically increases in the move from a five-day week to a four-day week, so claims that student discipline incidents decrease because they are in school for less time is not a viable argument.

Also, teachers commonly reflect upon the change from a five-day to a four-day week that students work harder, are engaged more, and learn more. Teachers have noted that there is increased intrinsic motivation to cover material in fewer days with more instructional time, and that students adjust to increased expectations by becoming more engaged. Moreover, the extra instructional time allows teachers to better teach more complicated subjects, which can otherwise be a problem especially in math and sciences.

Perhaps most importantly, teacher vitality and morale increases tremendously. Teaching is an extremely difficult job, where it is common for teachers to spend long nights and weekends assessing student work and preparing. Any teacher worth their salt does not work only “to the contract” work hours, but does everything they can in their non-working hours to provide as many learning opportunities for their students as possible. On a five-day week it is not uncommon to see teachers work late on Friday nights grading and assessing the week’s student work. Saturdays are often spent working on preparation for the next week’s worth of lessons, leaving Sundays to reinvigorate and spend time with their families.

As a result, teachers often start the school year each September bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to face new challenges. But by February, many become exhausted.  The four-day week, even though each instructional day is longer, provides three days for teachers to complete needed work and spend some much-needed time with their families. This simple fact increases teacher morale, decreases teacher turnover, and improves teacher vitality. This leads to happier and more energetic teachers, which results in better education for students.

Don’t let nostalgia for an antiquated tradition cloud your mind — take a few minutes and read about the four-day week and get the facts. Plan for the negative attributes, maximize the positive attributes, and make sure that the community is thoroughly involved in the implementation process. The best way to ensure the failure of the implementation of the four-day week is to “do it to the community, instead of “doing it with the community.”

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