Teachers Love 4-Day School Weeks. Do They Work?

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(Image credit: Photo by insung yoon on Unsplash)

Socorro Consolidated Schools in New Mexico, like many school districts, has long had trouble filling open positions.

“When you've got young teachers graduating from teacher schools, Socorro is not a place that is going to attract them,” says Ron Hendrix, superintendent of the small district with just more than 1,500 students. “There's no nightlife, there's really not anything to pull them here when they could go to Albuquerque, which is an hour away.” 

In recent years, the district would regularly start the school year with multiple open positions unfilled. To combat these vacancies the district adopted an increasingly common recruitment tool among rural districts around the country: a 4-day school week. Schools that adopt this non-traditional school week run slightly longer schedules for four days, with teachers and students having one day off (usually Friday).  

Between 1999 and 2019 the number of districts offering 4-day school weeks grew from 108 to 662. By 2021, more than 1,600 schools in 24 states had adopted (opens in new tab) this schedule. 

In the past, a switch to the 4-day school week was often motivated by a desire to save funds, but research (opens in new tab) indicates that district savings from the change are minimal. Today, the shift to a 4-day school schedule is being motivated by staffing concerns as well as an effort to improve the well-being of students and teachers. 

However, the impact of the schedule change on these factors, as well as academics, is still being debated and studied. 

4-Day School Schedule Bright Spots 

In a recent study (opens in new tab) of 4-day schools in Oklahoma, Emily Morton, a research scientist at The Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA, found that bullying incidents were reduced by 39 percent per pupil and fighting incidents were down by 31 percent per pupil. “Some of that's mechanical,” Morton says. “Students are there less, so of course, the incidents you would expect to see go down as well.”

However, decreased time in the school buildings doesn’t tell the whole story, as students at 4-day schools are only in school 18 percent less time on average. “So there's something else going on there that's a benefit,” Morton says. 

The schedule is also tremendously popular with students and parents according to surveys conducted as part of a Rand Corporation report (opens in new tab) comparing 4-day to 5-day school weeks. 

“The approval ratings for the 4-day school week are off the charts,” says Morton, who is also a co-author of the Rand report. “[Parents and students] really love it, and they say that morale is up at school. Kids are feeling more rested. The school climate is better.” 

However, when researchers compare the responses of students from 4-day schools to traditional 5-day schools, there is not great evidence of a difference in overall morale. “Parents and students are saying that that's something that's happening, but exactly how that's working and how different it is from a 5-day school week, it's hard for us to know at this point,” Morton says. 

 4-Day School Schedule Concerns  

The Rand report on 4-day school weeks found that while student test scores generally stayed the same or improved at 4-day schools, scores tended to improve at a slower rate than similar schools with a traditional 5-day schedule. The study examined state standardized tests in grades 3-8 in math and English Language Arts between 2011 and 2019 in Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, Alaska, and South Dakota. 

“Both 4-day school weeks and our comparison 5-day school week districts either stayed the same or grew in test performance during our time period, but 5-day school week districts grew faster,” says Christopher Joseph Doss, a policy researcher at Rand Corporation a co-author of the report. “Effectively, student achievement in math and ELA in our study was hurt by the 4-day school week policy because if the districts did not adopt the policy, the students would likely have scored even better.” 

The differences between 4- and 5-day schools was small each year but added up over time. “By the end of our 8-year period, these small yearly differences added up to a meaningful difference. Students were 0.15 to 0.20 standard deviations behind their counterparts in 5-day school week districts,” Doss says. 

Beyond these academic concerns, there are also questions about the schedule’s practicality in many districts. “The 4-day school week is very popular among very smaller and more rural districts,” Doss says. “Many people we interviewed in the rural districts either have grandparents that can take care of the kids, were able to rearrange work schedules, or shared childcare with neighboring families. Whether these arrangements are possible in suburban or urban districts is unknown.” 

4-Day Schedule In Practice 

At Socorro Consolidated Schools, the 4-day schedule is working well, Hendrix says. Fridays are used for sports and other extracurricular activities, but the school building stays open with supplementary educational offerings for children who don’t have other childcare options. While teachers are not required to work, they’re encouraged to offer Friday classes based on their passions. For example, a teacher might teach a class on sewing over a few weeks. 

For the first time in years, the district is starting the school year with no key open positions. Critics of the schedule question whether a 4-day school week will continue to be a recruiting tool as more schools adopt it and it becomes less of a novelty. Proponents believe that it may still help by encouraging more new teachers to enter the profession. 

Academically, the schedule seems to be working as well in Socorro, with last year seeing students on the 4-week schedule achieving academic success despite it being a strange school year. “Our students made, on average, about 1.4 years' worth of growth across the district,” Hendrix says. “Overall, we did much better than what I expected.” 

Hendrix previously worked for another district that had employed a 4-day schedule and, based on his experiences there and in Socorro, encourages other school leaders to explore the possibility that a 4-day schedule might be a good fit for their community. 

“My teachers and my students, it seems like the morale and the energy level in the school is so much better now because they all know Fridays off,” he says. Hendrix would even take things a step further and would like to see a 4-day schedule go community-wide among town employees and many businesses. “I think it'd be amazing, especially if you got a small to midsize town where everybody has worked hard for four days, and then you've got a long weekend.” 

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.