(by Chris Herring, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – A small but growing number of school districts across the country are moving to a four-day week, in a shift they hope will help close gaping budget holes and stave off teacher layoffs, but that critics fear could hurt students’ education.
State legislators and local school boards are giving administrators greater flexibility to set their academic calendars, making the four-day slate possible. But education experts say little research exists to show the impact of shortened weeks on learning. The missed hours are typically made up by lengthening remaining school days.
Of the nearly 15,000-plus districts nationwide, more than 100 in at least 17 states currently use the four-day system, according to data culled from the Education Commission of the States. Dozens of other districts are contemplating making the change in the next year-a shift that is apt to create new challenges for working parents as well as thousands of school employees. …
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said in an email that she couldn’t comment on four-day weeks in specific districts. But “generally, we are concerned about financial constraints leading to a reduction in learning time.” …
Some schools, meanwhile, say they are turning to the four-day schedule as a last resort. In North Branch, Minn., school Superintendent Deb Henton said her 3,500-student district, facing a $1.3 million deficit, is simply out of options.
“We’ve repeatedly asked our residents to pay higher taxes, cut some of our staff, and we may even close one of our schools,” she said. “What else can you really do?” Despite a “lot of opposition” from parents, she said, the district is set to adopt a four-day week for next school year.
A new law in Georgia allows schools a choice between a 180-day school year “or the equivalent.” Hawaii officials last October introduced 17 mandatory “Furlough Fridays” for state public schools. In Minnesota and Iowa, districts are drafting proposals for their state boards of education in hopes of implementing four-day schedules next school year.
In the rural Peach County, Ga., district, a four-day week this school year helped school officials save more than $200,000 last semester, trimming costs for custodial and cafeteria workers and bus drivers as well as transportation expenses and utilities, said system spokeswoman Sara Mason.
The district is on track to save 39 teaching positions and $400,000 by the end of the school year, helping to narrow a $1 million shortfall in the district’s $30 million annual budget.
“The savings so far have been phenomenal,” said Ms. Mason, adding that she has fielded calls from officials at a dozen other Georgia schools considering making the switch.
Teachers who still work the same number of hours over four days, instead of five, generally don’t see a reduction in salary. But staff who can’t make up the lost time, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, are often hard-hit, losing as much as 20% of their pay.
The four-day school week isn’t new. But until recently, it has been used mostly by small, rural districts. A few rural Colorado school districts implemented four-day calendars in the 1980s for financial reasons, and now about a third of the state’s 178 districts operate on a four-day calendar.
The system is currently most prevalent in Western states, where districts with four-day weeks in some cases comprise a quarter of the schools.
Four-day weeks have been in place for decades in states like New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming and initially came about as states were looking to combat growing energy prices. Last week, Pueblo School District 70 in Colorado said it would adopt the schedule next school year for its roughly 8,000 students.
The shift has drawn scrutiny from some education and parents groups who say the shorter week hurts students academically and complicates child-care efforts.
“There’s no way a switch like that wouldn’t negatively affect teaching and learning,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which is discouraging schools in the state from exploring four-day weeks.
Monte Thompson, superintendent of Gore Public Schools in Oklahoma, where the system is in its first year, said teachers have to do a “dog and pony show to keep kids’ attention” for the extra hour and 40 minutes spent in class from Tuesday to Friday.
“I get why schools have moved toward this, but I don’t think finances justify hurting the kids educationally,” said Mr. Thompson, who became the superintendent after the system was implemented. He said Gore schools are saving about $35,000 with the change, but will revert back to five days in the next school year.
The schedules have struck a nerve with some working parents who have had to revamp child-care plans. Christina Long, a mother of three girls who attend North Branch, Minn., schools, said she will also have to rethink her career plans in light of next year’s academic calendar.
“I’d always said I would go back to full-time once my youngest was in school,” said Ms. Long, who works part-time around her youngest daughter’s school schedule. “Next year was supposed to be that year, but now I don’t know what I can do job-wise with that four-day schedule.”
In Georgia’s Peach County, the community has stepped up to assist parents who’ve been put in a bind by the Tuesday to Friday school schedule. Two different Boys and Girls Club sites and a church are offering affordable child care and tutoring, respectively, on Mondays for between $10 and $15.
Officials in some districts say their students and teachers make good use of their day off. In Wyoming, many schools offer Friday tutoring sessions to keep students sharp, according to Dianne Frazier, an educational consultant with the state’s department of education.
She said students and teachers are expected to use Fridays to attend to various personal needs.
“In a lot of cases, a trip to the dentist would be unexcused if it happened on a school day,” she said. Many athletic events and practice sessions are also held on Fridays, she said.
Research gauging the impact of a four-day school week on student learning is scant. Officials in various states claim that comparisons and conclusions are difficult to make.
There has been no broad analysis of crucial test scores-on statewide achievement tests or college entrance exams-to show whether knowledge lags or not for students in four-day districts. Similarly, there have been no wide-ranging studies to indicate whether districts register comparable test scores after they make the jump.
A 2009 report by the Idaho Department of Education said evidence was inconclusive as to whether student achievement was affected by four-day systems. Fourteen out of 115 school districts in the state have four-day school weeks.
The Colorado Department of Education said the “jury is out on the question of student performance” under four-day weeks, according to a 2006 overview of the system.
Write to Chris Herring at email@example.com.
1. a) How many school districts are there in the United States?
b) How many districts are currently using the four-day system?
c) In how many states are some schools currently using the four-day system?
2. Why have some school districts gone to a four-day school week? Be specific.
3. Why are critics opposed to a four-day school week?
4. What problem does a four-day school week create for parents?
5. What type of school employees will have their salaries affected by the switch to a four-day system?
6. a) For what reason did states like New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming initially institute a four-day school week?
b) Does Wyoming’s offer of tutoring for students on Friday (see para. 22) defeat the purpose? Explain your answer.
7. a) Why will Gore, Oklahoma schools return to a five-day school week after trying the four day week for a year?
b) What do you think about the new superintendent’s decision to return to the five-day school week?
8. CHALLENGE: There are pros and cons to a four-day school week. But there are no conclusive studies to show how/whether a four-day school week affects student achievement. The reporter makes no mention of whether school districts have considered cutting existing programs or discretionary spending (e.g. after-school or pre-k programs, class trips, etc) instead of shortening the school week. Obtain a copy of your school district’s budget. Where do you think funding can be cut to balance the budget?
How involved should parents be in how the school budget is spent?
A large percent of property taxes are used on a town’s school budget. Should homeowners have a say in how their tax dollars are spent?