Shortening the school week while lengthening each day appears to be gaining renewed attention across the country, especially as school funding continues to lag following the end of the recession. The idea, on its face, seems attractive. Students spend the same amount of time in school each week, but the costs for transportation, utilities, foodservice, and other non-education services can be reduced.
To be clear: The four-day school week typically is not presented as a way to boost learning outcomes. Consequently, little formal research on its impact on learning has been conducted. The limited data available shows mixed results. Such findings are not surprising—if there is no change in the ways in which students engage in learning, there is little reason to expect changes in learning outcomes.
Still, there are arguments beyond cost savings in favor of a four-day school week. Some school districts have found that teachers like the added flexibility, appreciate the opportunity to spend more time with family, or feel the need take on additional work to supplement incomes. When school does not meet on Friday, less school time is lost for sports teams to travel to competition, especially in rural, sparsely populated areas. Some have even found that families are able to schedule medical and other appointments on off days, so students miss less school time.
On the other hand, a four-day school week can present some significant challenges. Schools are part of community systems. As with all systems, when there is a change in one part of the system, there often are implications for other parts of the system. For example, while schools may be saving money, families may be face significant new costs (often in the hundreds of dollars) if they have to arrange and pay for childcare on days off from school. In aggregate, these added costs can exceed savings achieved by the school district. Children from poor families often depend on meals they receive at school as a main source of food. Three-day weekends can mean that they go without regular meals for almost half of every week. Further, for students who are old enough not to require formal daycare, lack of supervision can leave them to make poor choices. In fact, several communities have seen up-ticks in youth crime with the shift to shorter school weeks.
Of course, each community is unique and decisions such as going to a four-day school week are best considered in the local context. In rural areas with small school districts, the advantages of such a shift may be greater and the disruption may be less than in suburban and urban communities. In some communities, it may be possible to reallocate cost savings from transportation, utilities, and foodservice to preserve programs and offer additional learning supports and opportunities.
Still, there are some general considerations worthy of attention regardless of size, location, and impetus for a change:
- What are the real savings from shifting to a four-day week, and what will be required to achieve and document them? For example, unless utilities such as heat, air conditioning, and lights are adjusted or turned off, little if any savings will be realized.
- What steps will be taken to ensure that learning opportunities are maintained, or even enhanced, through the change in schedule? Longer school days can lead to greater exhaustion, especially for younger students. Teaching the same lessons in the same ways for a longer period of time will not necessarily increase learning. In fact, it may do the opposite. Is there an opportunity to change the experiences of learners to enhance learning?
- What impact will such a change have on families? Families may be faced with new costs and challenges not readily apparent from the perspective of the school.
- What other systems and service providers need to be a part of the conversation? Social services, non-profits, law enforcement, and others may feel the impact of a change in school schedule. They also can help ensure a smooth transition within the community. Local employers also may have an interest in the change, since it will have implications for employees. Some may even be willing to shift their work schedules to better support families.