Research on the Four Day School Week: A Brief Pros and Cons Essay About A Shorter Week of Longer School Days
Four Day School Week Poll (Part 1)
BEFORE reading, do you think the four day school week is a good or bad idea?
Introduction: Are Four Day School Weeks a Solution to the Education Budget Crisis?
The overwhelming majority of American parents attended school for five days per week and expect that their children to follow a similar schedule. Yet, in truth, the world today is a completely different place than it was even two decades ago, with different problems and different requirements. With colleges continuing to raise their admissions standards, requiring higher-level courses and more involvement in extracurricular activities and community service, now is the worst time for schools to be scaling back successful programs that enable students to pursue the best education possible. School boards are in an untenable position, because parents will not accept any decrease in opportunities or quality of education, yet schools simply have no money to fund all current programs. What, then, should they do?
An oft-heard saying proclaims that ‘desperation is the mother of innovation.’ Other school districts, in circumstances just as desperate as those our local schools face, have tried switching from the traditional five-day school week to a four-day school week. Most parents’ immediate reaction to the notion of a four-day school week is concern – a common misconception is that a ‘four-day school week’ means one day a week is eliminated from the school schedule. This is only partially true. Four-day school weeks do meet either Monday through Thursday or Tuesday through Friday, but have a number of instructional hours that is greater than or equal to those in a five-day school week. The standard five-day week of brief school days ending in the mid-afternoon is compressed into four slightly longer days that last from morning until early evening, somewhat similar to the average American’s nine-to-five work schedule.
Debate About Four Day School Weeks: Analysis of Cost Control
The four-day week can curtail costs considerably. According to one study of four-day school weeks nationwide, “Districts implementing a four-day week schedule have found savings on utilities, school buses, and long-term building wear and tear.” Energy costs are important factors for schools. Due to recent events and rising oil prices, transportation costs are important as well. In 2008, when the price of diesel neared $5.00 a gallon, school districts reported spikes of up to forty percent in transportation-related costs. California school districts determined that school bus routes could cost up to $1400 per student in urban areas and $900 per student in rural areas. Suburban areas would probably have a cost somewhere between those two figures. With fuel prices rising, eliminating the need for busing students, even for just one day per week, could lead to significant budget relief.
In general, total savings range from two to nine percent of a school district’s operating budget. While a savings of two percent may seem like an insignificant figure at first, in times of financial crisis, those extra dollars can pay teachers’ salaries and prevent cuts in school programming. The thousands or millions of dollars saved provide budget planners with more flexibility in allocating funds. For example, in 2003, the Webster County Public School system in Kentucky needed to cut twenty percent of its budget to stay afloat. They determined that “implementing a four-day school week would be the most effective response to the financial crisis.”
Given a model district – GCISD – with a total annual operating budget of $143 million, the district could expect to save anywhere between $3 million and $12 million per year with a four-day school week. For perspective, the district spends approximately $1.8 million on transportation, $2.8 million on extracurricular activities, $4.1 million on guidance and counseling, and $1.2 million on health services. While the exact outcome cannot be predicted, a four-day school week would save enough money for GCISD to fully fund any one – and potentially, all – of these programs.
Four Day School Week: Impact on Learning and Education
One of the most important considerations for any policy shift in a school district should be that policy’s impact on students’ education. When trying to trim the budget, care should be taken to ensure that cuts have as minimal an impact on the quality of education as possible. Fortunately, school districts report that switching to a four-day schedule actually improves the opportunities that their students receive.
There are several factors responsible for this effect. The first is the actual layout of classes in the two schedules. In a five-day school week, classes are typically held each day for fifty minutes each, whereas in a four-day school week, classes are generally at least an hour long. Teachers note that the longer class periods allow for “more focused instruction.” Many schools have worked successfully with longer class periods under the block scheduling program, in which classes meet every other day for ninety minutes (for an average of 225 minutes in each class per week) – but as previously noted, some schools have terminated this schedule due to budget cuts. This schedule was so popular with students and parents alike that the School Board received numerous emails urging them to reconsider their decision. Implementing a four-day school week would allow the school district to continue achieving success with longer class periods while still saving millions of dollars per year.
Teachers’ anecdotal reports of the longer classes being more effective have been backed up by statistics. In the year following the transition to a four-day school week, Webster County third-graders scored, on average, 3 percent higher on year-end standardized tests. Ninth graders scored five percent higher, and scores continued to climb in the following years. The same trend generally appears nationwide. Citing previous studies, researchers at the University of Maine concluded, “Much of the literature on the practice concludes that a condensed schedule may have a positive effect, and in most cases has no negative impact.” Clearly, four day school weeks aren't bad for students' learning.
While part of the effect is due to the longer classes, another factor to consider is student fatigue. Although many parents initially worry that longer school days will be more tiring for children, this effect is not actually observed. Discussing Webster County’s transition to the four-day school week, Yarbrough and Gilman observed, “… some teachers believed that the longer day would be tiring for younger children. However, this did not prove to be a problem, and we now even have full-day kindergarten.” In fact, students adjust quickly to the longer days and actually feel less fatigued as a result of the three-day weekend. Just as many working adults begin to drag at the end of a long week, so do children – having a three-day weekend allows them more flexibility with their time. High school senior Erin Bondy, a student at a four-day school in Kerrville, Texas, explained, “With that extra day, I can work on everything, so I’m not rushed to get to deadlines.” Other students concurred, noting that with effective time management, they had more of an opportunity to relax and enjoy their weekend. Thus, a four-day schedule can actually reduce student fatigue, making them more alert and focused in class.
The Four Day School Week: Better Extracurricular Opportunities Are A Pro
Four-day school weeks are clearly a budget-friendly method of maintaining and improving student performance on classroom assignments. In addition, they can also enhance students’ learning opportunities outside of school. Under a traditional five-day school week, students have limited time on the weekends that must be divided between homework, extracurricular activities, and personal pursuits. In a four-day school week, students have more time and no longer must choose between enjoying their weekend and pursuing their education outside of school. In Kerrville, students use the extra day for activities ranging from field trips and athletics to community service. The researchers also found that some students used the extra day for part-time employment. In addition to providing students with real-world work experience, such opportunities can be important for middle-class families negatively impacted by the recession. As Webster County superintendent James Kemp noted in a 2008 Time Magazine article, “Now that economic tides have turned, this is a godsend for families where kids’ jobs are helping make ends meet.”
While it is not tough to sell students on the idea of a three-day weekend, parents and teachers can initially be more resistant, concerned about how the changes will affect them.
Parents in particular are concerned about latchkey children. This concern is expressed more by parents of younger children than by parents of older children. Nonetheless, school districts that have implemented four-day school weeks have found numerous methods of alleviating these concerns.
Some of the school districts implementing four-day school weeks simultaneously implement programs training high school students as babysitters. Since the high school students have Fridays off as well, many of them can look after younger students. Either way, parents find that once implemented, the four-day schedule is easier to deal with than the five-day schedule, because it is easier to find a babysitter for a full day (Monday or Friday) than for several hours each evening. Parents who work full-time also report that their children’s schedules now match theirs better – children arrive home at approximately the same time as the parents do for four days of the week. While resistance prior to implementation can be high, four-day weeks quickly win over parents. One year after implementation, ninety percent of parents in the Custer school district in South Dakota supported the new schedule, which falls in line with a nationwide average of eighty to ninety percent of parents supporting the four-day week once their children have experienced it.
Teachers have expressed various concerns as well. Some are based on the misconception that longer days will increase student fatigue, an issue discussed earlier in this report. Other teachers worry that they will be forced to work longer hours without any increase in pay.
However, most teachers’ concerns vanish once the new policy is actually in effect. Besides benefiting teachers by saving millions of dollars, thereby increasing their job security (undoubtedly a good thing!), the four-day school week provides teachers with the same opportunities on the weekends that students have. Teachers observe that they have more time for school-related activities such as grading papers or professional development, as well as more time for personal pursuits. They also note specifically that until the four-day school week was implemented, they did not realize how much time was wasted in a traditional five-day schedule. The vast majority of teachers in four-day districts – approximately eighty percent – support the schedule.
Overall, ninety percent of respondents (students, parents, and teachers) in four-day districts support the new schedule.
Four Day School Week Poll (Part 2)
AFTER reading, do you think the four day school week is a good or bad idea?
Conclusion: There's Good and Bad, But The Pros of the Four Day School Week Outweigh the Cons
While opinions vary widely, mine is that the pros of the four day school week outweigh the cons -- so I believe that four day school week is a good idea. Based on the statistics -- such as saved costs and higher test scores -- as well as the anecdotal reports of teachers, students, and parents alike preferring the schedule, I have to conclude that four day school weeks might just be a solution to our current education budget fiscal crisis.
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