Four-day school weeks saw a sharp increase in popularity between 1999 and 2019, then the pandemic added impetus to the already growing trend—with districts seeing shortened school weeks as a way to retain teachers and cut expenses. Certain districts were able to drop the extra day by extending instructional hours for the remaining four days, though this has been shown to still reduce learning time by three to four hours per week. Qualitative data showed positive sentiment from families and educators toward four-day schedules, yet teacher retention and budgetary issues remain largely unchanged.
But what about achievement? Quantitative studies have revealed small adverse effects, but most prior research was limited by single-state and district-level data. A recent study conducts a more comprehensive multi-state, student-level analysis of the impact of a four-day school week on math and reading achievement and confirms negative effects on average, although achievement varies depending on rurality.
The researchers used twelve years of data from thirty-five schools across six states—Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming—and used a difference-in-differences research design to examine the causal effects of a four-day school week on math and reading achievement compared with students with a five-day week. Achievement was measured in two ways: (1) spring standardized math and reading test scores, and (2) fall-to-spring test score gains.
The districts in the study that adopted a four-day schedule tend to have smaller enrollments, have higher percentages of low-income students, and be located in more rural areas than schools that follow a five-day schedule. Students classified as living in non-rural areas are located in suburbs or towns, as no city districts have authorized four-day schedules.
The study finds, on average, a significant negative effect on reading scores and a negative, but not statistically significant, effect on math scores. Fall-to-spring gains, however, experience a “medium” decrease (0.06 SD each) in math and reading compared to five-day schools.
The researchers further dissected the data to find that non-rural districts experience larger negative effects than rural ones. For rural schools, there was no discernible effect of four-day weeks on spring test scores. In non-rural schools, however, there is a significant decrease in math (0.08 SD) and reading (0.11 SD) scores. There are additional differences between rural and non-rural districts in fall-to-spring growth. Four-day rural schools show a 0.04 SD decrease in reading gains over the year and no effect for math. In contrast, non-rural schools with a four-day week show a significant decrease in both math (0.08 SD) and reading (0.09 SD) gains. To put this in context, fifth grade students typically see a 0.40 SD improvement in achievement over the year, so non-rural fifth grade students attending school four days per week are losing a quarter of their expected achievement.
Districts have been implementing four-day schedules for two decades in the name of cost reduction, but with limited research on other effects. Now that the once blurry picture of shortened school weeks and their impact on student achievement is coming into focus, policymakers should follow the data: less school means less learning. Previous research has shown small effects of four-day school weeks on student achievement, but now that the data have been deconstructed, we see that non-rural schools experience a disproportionately larger impact.
Even more disconcerting, rural districts show very little learning loss as a result of shifting to four-day weeks. What does this say about the education system in many parts of the country? Perhaps our focus should shift away from futile attempts to cut spending, and toward providing a meaningful and effective education for all students.
SOURCE: Morton, Emily, Paul Thompson, and Megan Kuhfeld, “A Multi-State, Student-Level Analysis of the Effects of the Four-Day School Week on Student Achievement and Growth,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (August 2022).