What the research says about the 4-day school week

The research evidence is not clear. The first empirical study, published in 2015, found that Colorado students did much better in four-day schools. The number of fifth graders proficient in math increased by more than 7 percentage points. The number of fourth graders proficient in reading has increased by about 4 percent. These results seemed to defy logic.

But now seven new studies have found generally negative results — some small and some more significant. A 2021 study from Oregon, for example, calculated that a fifth-grader makes about one-sixth of the typical gains in math in a four-day week, which equates to about five to six weeks of school. Over the years, those losses can add up for students.

The most recent of the seven studies, a preliminary paper posted on Brown University’s Annenberg Institute website in August 2022, was a large multi-state analysis and found that the four-day week harmed some students more than others.

NWEA and Oregon State University researchers led by Morton began by analyzing the test scores of 12,000 students in 35 schools who took a four-day week in six states: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. As with the latest crop of studies, they found that the four-day week wasn’t great for academic achievement average. Test scores for four-day students in grades three through eight rose slightly less during the school year than hundreds of thousands of students in those six states who attended school five days a week. (Urban students were excluded from the analysis because no city schools adopted a four-day week. Only rural, small-town, and suburban students were included.)

The switch seems to hit reading achievement more than math achievement. It was amazing. Reading is easier to do at home while math is a subject that students primarily learn and practice in school. During pandemic school closings and remote learning, for example, math achievement generally suffers more than reading.

The researchers focused on rural students. Rural schools accounted for seven out of 10 schools on the four-day schedule in this study. The pattern of students in rural communities was also different. They tended to be poorer than those in small towns and suburbs, and rural students had lower test scores. In the six midwestern and western states in this study, the share of Native American and Hispanic students was higher in rural areas than in small cities and suburbs.

When the researchers compared rural students attending four-day schools with rural students attending traditional five-day schools, ignoring small town and suburban students entirely, the results changed dramatically. Rural four-day students generally learn more than rural five-day students. Statistically, both groups’ test scores increased by about the same amount each year.

In contrast, students from small towns and suburbs who moved to a four-day week fared much worse than students from other states. While it’s less common for small-town and suburban schools to switch to four days — they make up just 30 percent of four-day schools — their students seem to be really disadvantaged. For example, a quarter of the general gains that fifth graders typically make in a year disappear.

The distinctions the US Census Bureau makes between a rural area and a small town are quite technical. I think of a small town far from a metropolitan area, but with a bit of commerce and more people than a rural area.

This quantitative study of test scores does not explain why rural school students do better than small town students with only four days. NWEA’s Morton, the lead author, has long studied the four-day school week and conducted a study before 2022 in rural Oklahoma, where he found no academic penalty for the shorter week.

One possible explanation, Morton says, is sports. Many rural athletes and young student fans leave school early on Fridays or skip school altogether because of the long distances to travel to away games. In reality, many five-day students in rural America are receiving only four days of instruction.

“One district we talked to, half the kids will be out for football on Friday,” Morton said. “They won’t really do math on Fridays, because how do you teach with only half the classroom? So it’s affecting everyone.”

Absences from football games, considered part of school, are often “excused”. Official records do not reveal that four-day schools have better attendance rates because many Friday classes that five-day students skip are not recorded in attendance data.

Another possible explanation is teaching. A four-day work week is an attractive job perk in rural America that can lure better teachers.

“Rural districts have a harder time getting highly qualified or committed teachers, sometimes harder to get teachers tenure, in their buildings, and to retain them than urban or suburban districts,” Morton said. “These are all anecdotal, but they say in interviews that teachers are happier. They prefer to spend more time with their own children. It gives them time to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

By this theory, four-day schools can make it easier to hire better teachers, who can accomplish in four days what a less skilled teacher accomplishes in five.

A four-day week isn’t necessarily better, but the five-day week in rural America has its own drawbacks: hidden absenteeism, skipped lessons, and low-quality teachers.

So what does it all do? Morton says there’s reason to think the four-day week is working better in rural America than elsewhere, but he doesn’t recommend it wholeheartedly. Hispanic students, who accounted for about one in six rural students in the study, were far more disadvantaged by the four-day week than white students. (Native American students, who make up one in 10 rural students, did relatively well in the four-day week.)

Morton also worries that rural students may ultimately suffer academically from shorter weeks. In his calculations, he detected indications that even four-day students in rural schools were learning slightly less than five-day students, but the difference was not statistically significant. The downside of four-day education can be detected in a larger study with more students.

“We don’t want to say ‘it doesn’t harm children’ when it actually may harm children to some extent,” Morton said. “Another thing that can happen is that it can harm children more over time. It may be that we haven’t observed it long enough.”

For schools considering a four-day week, scheduling is important. Some schools have gotten better at preserving instructional time, Morton told me, by rescheduling hours over four long days. Others struggled to preserve every minute of math and reading instruction. Long hours can also tax the attention span of young children. It’s a tradeoff.

Historically, schools have shortened the school week to save costs. This was especially needed in rural communities, which not only suffered with declining tax revenues after the 2008 recession, but also suffered education budget cuts due to population and student enrollment declines.

However, the biggest surprise to me in this review of the research is how small the cost savings are: 1 to 2 percent. It saves some money not having to run the heat or the bus one day a week, but the biggest cost, the teacher’s salary, stays the same.

The four-day week may ultimately be a popular policy, but not one that is particularly great for public finance or education.

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