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Expert Urges Caution Before School Districts Implement Four-Day Weeks

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A couple of weeks ago, we posted about more and more school districts around the country going to four-day weeks. We included a Q&A with a superintendent from Missouri whose district has had a four-day week since the 2010-11 school year. Lathrop, Mo., Superintendent Chris Fine is a big proponent of his district's Tuesday-Friday schedule.

That story prompted someone from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell to reach out to me on Twitter to let me know the center's founder has a different take on the issue.

The center posted a link to this article entitled, "A Troubling Contagion: The Rural Four-Day School Week," by CRPE Founder and University of Washington Research Professor Paul Hill and Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at CRPE. Reading it prompted me to reach out to Paul to do a Q&A with him.

Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

How widespread would you say this schedule is in rural areas, particularly out West?

I can't speak for any place east of the Mississippi. But it's now becoming the case in a near or actual majority of school districts in the Intermountain West. That's Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah. Obviously, it's spread to a near majority of districts in Oregon. I've gotten calls since my op-ed from Nebraska and Oklahoma where I don't think it's as prevalent, but it's spreading like wildfire in those places.

Would it be fair to say you're not a fan of the four-day week?

I believe that schools can do fine with four-day weeks, and there can be many ways where that can be worked out. But I also believe that it takes serious thinking in advance. It doesn't just automatically work. There are problems that have to be dealt with: what do with the little kids, what to do with kids whose families don't have the capacity to take up the slack on the [fifth] day, how to make sure that teachers give assignments that keep the kids in the game during the three days they have off and then be sure that teachers read those assignments or respond to them so they're educational and not just make-work. There are lots of things that could make the four-day week quite successful, but what I was seeing was that in the West, it was being adopted under the original rationale of saving money. Then when it wasn't saving money, it was being adopted because it was popular among the adults.

What did you observe during your research into schools that have adopted this schedule?

Certain places I visited were trying to make it work but were finding it more difficult than they thought. Others went into it without really a lot of preparation. So I was trying to create some caution and some reason for people to think about it more than once before they did it. The four-day week is a different animal than other changes in policy. If you're running a district and decide to bring in the ABC reading curriculum or math curriculum, and you try it out for a while and it doesn't work, you can get another one. That's not the best thing to do, but those changes are possible. But this is a change in the adult-work structure. If you start the four-day week and it's not working out, it's very hard to see how you're going to put it back to a five-day week because so many adult arrangements have been made around the new four-day week. I see it as being one of those changes that might be, if done right, acceptable, maybe no harm, maybe a little good in some cases. But if they're not done right, probably harmful, and in any case, extremely hard to reverse.

How could it be harmful?

If you go four days a week, the longer day every day, and the little kids turn out to be too tired to benefit from the additional time, that's a problem. If you expect that on the fifth day of the week there's going to be a study hall or enrichment but that depends on somebody that's not part of the school and they don't come through, that could be a problem. Or, if the teachers say they will work together on the fifth day and take all the time they would have done for professional development out of all of the other days but if that's not what happens and they start putting their professional development and other absences into the other days, then you lose proportionally more than ever. I see lots of potential harms that need to be avoided and not much thinking in advance about how to avoid them.

Many districts are going to this schedule to save money, but you say that doesn't really end up happening. Why are the savings often less than expected?

The four-day week plan really involves keeping teachers on a five-day contract. There's no effort to reduce the pay or time of teachers. That's the vast majority of all the costs, and they're already fixed. The idea of the four-day week is you might save some money having one day less for the janitor to work, one day less of running the cafeteria, if you're a rural area, one day less of running the buses. You can save money on those things. But, for example, the buses are usually already owned or leased. You might save some cost on the operation of the buses but not on the purchase of the buses. You might decide that you don't really want to tell people who used to have a five-day job like the bus drivers and the nonteaching staff that suddenly they get a four-day job, and they're paid 80 percent of their previous pay. You might decide you want to keep them around a little bit, and that lowers the range of possible savings. Then you get these offsetting costs like you keep the school open longer. That means you heat it longer in the four days you're operating. It means sometimes the little kids are going to need another snack, so you end up with food service you hadn't had before. In the end, a few places have saved some money. But on the whole, at least the ECS [Education Commission of the States] estimate that I looked at and what I found in my own study, was that most places realized they had saved almost no money. You can see why taking a bold step to save 20 percent of the budget would justify a serious move. But a bold step to profoundly change the use of time and cut the number of school days by 20 percent and save 1 percent, that's a little different story, and I think that's what people are finding.

Does this schedule put a special burden on working families?

It certainly does. I have heard that there are some employers in these areas that are starting to change their own hours. In some places, the working families may end up working four longer days a week, but that would be rare, I think. Families that are paid on piecework basis or definitely an hourly basis—they're not going to want to give up any of their work time. In contrast, the families that have a parent at home all the time, it's a different story for them. Some of these cities we studied, little towns we studied, half their student population or a quarter of it was newly settled out Hispanic migrants. They usually lived a little out of town. The parents were constantly at work on piecework. There was no institution. There wasn't a church or anything out in the neighborhood these kids lived in. Unless someone in the town, a church in the town, or some volunteer group set up a learning opportunity for them, they were going to be at loose ends. It was a very different story for the middle class town dwellers in these small places. They have lots of ideas about how to do enrichment. I think it's a financial burden on double-earner families, and it's an educational burden on kids who are not in advantaged environments.

Is your main concern that students are being shortchanged even though in many cases they end up going to school for more hours than other students?

I'm afraid they are. All I've got is the anecdotal and case study evidence I've provided. Unanimously, I'm convinced that the children of the poor, and particularly the migrant kids, are suffering. It may be disputable if you can learn as much by adding an hour and a half to four days as you can by adding a day. I'd be very surprised if any psychologists would think that's good learning theory to lengthen the day. Kids need time to consolidate. I'm not saying it can never work.  But I'm saying there are lots of things that are scary about it. There are adjustment issues that maybe the four-day week people will find their way through. Teachers told us that kids who have been out of school three days are really different from kids who have been out two days. The teachers were saying that they had the feeling of the first day back from vacation every Monday, and so did the kids. It took a long time to get started. Maybe they find a way around that. Maybe the kids who are too tired to benefit from the extra hour and a half of instruction in the beginning get used to it and learn how to take advantage of it, but maybe they don't.

What are your other concerns for students?

If I'm a teacher and I get sick on Monday, and I don't come to school but I come the rest of the week, I've cut 20 percent out of my working week and my kids have had that [much] less contact with me. If I'm in a four-day week and I get sick and don't come in on Monday, I've cut 25 percent out of it. The same is true if the district says we're going to do our travel to sports games on Fridays when we're not in school, but in fact, there's a game on Tuesdays so we let the kids out, and we go to the game.That has a much bigger effect than doing that on Friday afternoon in a regular school week. I'm just afraid people haven't talked about all of the liabilities.

Your article focuses on students in rural areas. Are there special factors to consider where they are concerned?

Rural kids on average do pretty well in terms of the way they're tested. They graduate from school at a pretty good rate. It might be that the four-day week doesn't substantially reduce those facts. But the other side of it is rural kids do much worse in college, much worse applying, much worse showing up, much worse doing without remediation and much worse persisting. There's reason to think that something about their instruction is part of the problem. Even the status quo is not a good thing. A locality that says we did the four-day week, and we didn't get any worse is kind of saying that we've decided the ceiling of our past performance is what we aspire to, and that's not a good thing.

Any final thoughts?

I know there are some good, four-day week schools. I'm a political scientist, and I always get extremely concerned when I see a community in which the adults have made a deal with one another that they're all happy with that may put the kids at risk. The politics of this is the kids aren't saying anything.


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