Teachers and school districts push for four-day school weeks, despite proven negative effects on students

Schools across the country are increasingly considering moving to four-day school weeks (FDSWs) to save money, but numerous studies question whether the money saved is worth the damage done.

A March 2019 study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics examined Oregon schools with FDSWs, and how the shortened schedules affected students’ performance in school. The pre-pandemic study found FDSWs to be the driving factor in diminishing student achievement in math and reading classes.

“The results suggest that four-day school weeks are more detrimental for the math and reading achievement of boys and the reading achievement of low-income students,” the study reads. “Earlier school start times and lost instructional time of nearly three and a half hours a week appear to be the primary mechanisms underlying these achievement losses.”

Despite multiple studies showing various negative effects of FDSWs on students, 141 schools across Missouri have already moved to FDSWs, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

The nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA), along with several of its state-level affiliates, are supportive of the idea, notwithstanding the proven negative consequences. Some question whether the union’s support is more about the shortened schedule’s benefits to teachers rather than students and their academic achievement. 

To that point, an article on the NEA’s website titled, “After moving to a four-day school week, there may be no going back,” the NEA quotes a local teachers’ union president exclaiming support for the shortened weeks due to the advantages given to teachers. 

“When the idea of a four-day week was first floated in [School District 27J in Colorado], the Brighton Education Association (BEA) surveyed its members on the proposal,” the article reads. “The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The new schedule, says Kathey Ruybal (president of BEA union), ‘treats teachers as the professionals they are.’”

Still, many note that professionals in nearly every other career or industry work full five-day weeks. Some argue teachers are simply trying to work less for the same pay, regardless of what happens to student achievement. 

“If the NEA is involved, I think that’s very accurate,” said Missouri state Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport. “They’re bad actors, and they couldn’t care less about the kids.”

Bayse compared the NEA’s push for FDSWs to its push to keep kids out of school during the pandemic, even when COVID-19 infection rates were drastically decreasing and children faced minimal risk of becoming seriously ill due to the virus. 

“The kids suffered. Again, it was never about what was best for the children. It was about what teachers wanted.”

“The inequity in our schools is infuriating,” Ruybal continues in the NEA article. “But we can’t stand by and watch good teachers leave our district. … This new schedule can help us but it has been a difficult adjustment. It’s a multi-year process and we’re trying to make it work.”

A multi-year march to FDSWs may be even more of a detriment to students: In a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released Oct. 7, 2021 and dissected by Education Week, Oklahoma, Idaho and New Mexico schools with FDSWs were compared to similarly situated districts with normal five-day weeks – and the negative outcomes only compounded over time.

“Around three years after the switch, student growth in the four-day districts began to fall short compared to that in similarly situated five-day districts,” Education Week writes. “The finding grew more pronounced with time and the slowdown in achievement was more dramatic in math than in reading.”

The article also notes that a shortened schedule “doesn’t yield huge cost savings,” despite school districts claiming so, “and with time, seemed to slow student learning.”

While teachers’ unions may support shortened work weeks, other studies show that the negative effects of FDSWs on students include – aside from hampering their academic progress – diminishing attendance and increased behavioral issues.

A 2018 study in the peer-reviewed research journal “Economics of Education Review” considered the effects of FDSWs across Colorado schools and found four-day weeks affect the rate of youth involvement in crime. 

The research concluded that “students on a four-day week experience about a 20 percent increase in juvenile criminal offenses, where the strongest effect is observed for property crime.”

A Dec. 27, 2021 study in “Education Economics,” a peer-reviewed research journal, observed the effects on Oregon students attending a FDSW for the first time when entering high school. The study reported increased absences among students, and again found a lower proficiency in math.

“We also find a greater number of four-day school week students being classified as chronically absent,” the study reads. “Finally, we find reductions in on-time graduation among four-day school week students compared to five-day students.”

As for the claim that moving to a four-day week would save school districts money, a 2011 study by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) shows the saving potential of FDSWs to be minimal. 

“Using national finance data supported by information from individual districts, ECS has determined that the average district could produce a maximum savings of 5.43% of its total budget by moving to a four-day week,” the study reads. “In addition, it was found that districts that moved to a four-day week have experienced actual savings of only between 0.4% and 2.5%.”

As the NEA and its affiliate partners continue to push for the shortened weeks, it is unclear if more attention will be given to the research showing FDSWs’ damaging outcomes for students. 

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