Experts on Camera

Dr. Paul Thompson: Four-day school weeks

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An increasing number of U.S. schools, mostly in small and rural districts, are adopting a four-day-per-week schedule.

On Tuesday, September 12, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University. He can discuss topics including: his research showing that the number of four-day schools has increased by nearly 900 percent in the last 20 years, to more than 2,100 schools in 26 states; the reasons that schools adopt this schedule, including staffing shortages and budget concerns; how this schedule—which typically makes each school day longer—affects the total amount of instructional time for students; effects on student learning outcomes, including math and reading test scores; and what else is known about the effects of a four-day school week on parents, students, teachers, and staff, including issues of nutrition, physical activity, childcare, and overall school and community climate.

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Introduction

[0:00:19]

PAUL THOMPSON: I’m Paul Thompson. I’m an associate professor of economics here at Oregon State University. And I’ve been researching the four-day school week for around seven years now.

 

Interview with SciLine


What is a four-day school week?


[0:00:28]

PAUL THOMPSON: A four-day school week is this kind of alternative school schedule that moves us away from a traditional five-day school week, like we see in many school districts, and now students only attend four days per week. Schools try to compensate for this lost amount of time by increasing the number of hours that students attend on the other four school days.


When, where, and why have four-day school weeks been adopted?


[0:01:10]

PAUL THOMPSON: As of today, we’re in about 2,100 schools in almost 900 school districts across the U.S. that are currently using a four-day school week model, and that’s about double what it was 10 years ago—and almost a 40% increase from what it was prior to the pandemic and in 2019. So we’ve seen this kind of growing over time. Historically, schools have used this as a way to try to save costs, by reducing the amount of time your school is in operation. But more recently, and especially since the pandemic, schools have been turning to this model as a way to try to deal with things like teacher burnout, teacher stress, and as a way to attract and retain teachers in these highly rural districts. Almost 90% of the school districts that use a four-day school week model come from rural areas.


What are the benefits of the four-day school week?


[0:02:15]

PAUL THOMPSON: Flexibility is kind of the biggest benefit here: giving flexibility for teachers for lesson planning, other things; giving flexibility in costs for school districts. We found that when schools made this switch, there weren’t really large-scale cost savings as a result of this, but it did increase some funds that could be reallocated in another way. So there is some flexibility that comes out of this. And then I think it gives flexibility to families and students that—you might not have to miss instructional time for appointments or athletic events and other extracurricular activities, where many rural communities face very large distances between school and appointments and other things. This can work really well in communities that kind of feel like this is a lifestyle change for them. The four day school week allows for these other types of activities to not impact school as starkly as it did under a five-day model.


How does the four-day school week affect the total amount of instructional time for students?


[0:03:29]

PAUL THOMPSON: As schools eliminate this one day per week of in person instruction, they do lengthen hours on the remaining four school days. But this lengthening on the other days doesn’t fully compensate for that lost day. So most schools are losing instructional time as a way to facilitate this four day school week model. We saw this in Oregon, where schools were reducing weekly time in school by around three to four hours per week. And some schools are lengthening that more or less. I think it’s around anywhere from one or two hour reductions per week, up to five or six hours per week.


How does the four-day school week affect student learning outcomes?


[0:03:37]

PAUL THOMPSON: When schools make the switch to a four-day school week model, achievement is reduced. A lot of this can be linked to reductions in time in school. In Oregon, we saw three- or four-hour reductions per week in time in school, when schools made the switch to the four-day school week model. And those hour reductions linked almost directly to the declines that we saw in student achievement. These represented around a 45-minute to an hour reduction per week in math and reading instruction and kind of aligned with what we see from other research looking at instructional time. We’ve looked at this nationally, as well. And what we’ve noticed is that schools that have the lower end of time in school seem to be the four-day school weeks where most of these detrimental achievement effects are present. If you look at schools that kind of maintain instructional time or keep adequate instructional time close to what it was under a five-day school week, we don’t see any noticeable differences in achievement between four- and five-day school week students.


How does the four-day school week affect students outside of the classroom?


[0:05:36]

PAUL THOMPSON: This four-day school week model has kind of larger-scale implications for students. It’s taking them away from the school environment, away from peers, taking them away from access to school meals or physical education opportunities one day a week. Maybe they’re unsupervised on the day off. There’s implications for things like nutrition, physical activity, engagement in risky behaviors. We’ve seen some evidence of this from survey data here in Oregon that students are getting less breakfast; they’re drinking more sugary beverages, which isn’t great for nutrition and engaging in drug use at a higher rate. And other research in this space has found that juvenile crime has also increased as a result of the four-day school week. A paper in Colorado found that as more schools opt into a four-days-a-week model, juvenile crime increased by almost 20%. These are things that I think local communities should be aware of—parents should be aware of, school officials should be aware of—because it’s not just achievement that matters here.


How does the four-day school week affect families?


[0:06:20]

PAUL THOMPSON: Research has shown that mother’s employment, hours of work, things like that fell as a result of increased enrollment on a four-day school week model in a local area. And issues of childcare I think are something that is a huge equity concern in many of these communities. Some school districts have been able to offer off-day services to families as a way to kind of mitigate some of these problems. But these are often plagued by two main things. One is financial. It’s very difficult for many of these rural communities to offer these types of services, especially—historically, these were motivated by cost-savings motivations. That kind of goes against those benefits. The second thing is, even if you’re able to provide it, often these programs are kind of very low enrolled—very low participation rates. So even if, initially these are offered because of low participation, because of the high cost, often schools may opt out of providing these over the long term. Finding ways engage families that really need these services I think is key to avoid issues of some families or some students kind of being really negatively impacted by the school schedule. But many parents and communities really liked these four-day school weeks. If you see surveys of parents, teachers, students—these are often very highly positive in terms of the four-day school week and very few communities opt to go back to a five-day model once they’ve made the switch.


How could increased time outside of the classroom benefit students?


[0:08:40]

PAUL THOMPSON: It allows for more experiential learning opportunities. Students don’t have to be stuck in a classroom five days a week. It opens up opportunities for internships or job shadowing for older students. I think trying to engage more experiential learning opportunities at younger levels, as well, I think would be key for for making this kind of the most successful version that it could be.


Do four-day school weeks affect students differently across age?


[0:09:13]

PAUL THOMPSON: We’ve looked at achievement across the age spectrum, and what we’ve noticed is these negative achievement effects are most prominent for elementary and middle-school students who are often bearing the full brunt of reductions in how much hours in school they attend. In Oregon, we saw three- or four-hour reductions per week in time in school. And elementary and middle-school students were facing those entire drops in instructional time. Compare that to high schoolers, where especially in Oregon, a lot of schools are making this switch for things related to student absences. Where high schools say, half our school is already gone on a Friday for an athletic event, for example, the four day school week is thought as a way to recapture some of that lost time.


Does it make sense for entire school districts to implement four-day school weeks?


[0:10:13]

PAUL THOMPSON: Over the next few years there could be some questions about: What’s the optimal way to structure the four-day school week? Is it kind of a district-wide implementation we’ve seen almost universally so far? Or are there questions about whether or not this works best as a high-school-only model. Where students can take advantage of recapturing that lost time or go and do an internship or other experiential learning opportunities on that fifth day.


How are reporters doing covering the four-day school week?


[Posted September 12, 2023 | Download video]