Experts discuss switching to four-day school weeks

Switching to a four-day school week saves very little money but has the potential to provide more professional development and collaboration time for staff and enrichment or remediation time for students if Fridays are well planned. These were some of the findings shared during Wednesday’s panel discussion on Idaho’s upward trend of moving to four-day school weeks.

By last school year, 42 of Idaho’s 115 districts and 10 charter schools had implemented a four-day school week. The number is expected to grow by a couple more this year.

While only one percent of school districts nationwide have adopted four-day weeks, Idaho is accelerating to one-third of its districts and 10 percent of its traditional and charter school population (27,000 students).

This trend prompted the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho to investigate the effects of this trend. Last school year, members of ROCI interviewed district and school leaders in 20 Idaho districts with four-day weeks and produced a report — released this month — to help inform a local and statewide conversation about the switch.

The report was the basis of a three-person panel discussion in front of an audience of about 30, mostly education leaders and lawmakers.

The panelists

Paul Hill — He is a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the director of ROCI.

Rep. Julie Van Orden — She is in her second term in the Idaho House of Representative and sits on the House Education Committee. She is the chairman for the Snake River School District Board of Trustees and was a member of the board when the district decided to transition to a four-day week.

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Norm Stewart — He is the superintendent of the Marsing School District and has led several districts with four-day weeks.

Hill started the panel discussion by sharing highlights of his report. Here are some of his findings:

  • There is not much of a cost savings, although that is the motivation for decreasing the days students are required to be in school.
  • The idea of a fifth day regularly being used for professional development or student enrichment is seldom realized.
  • It’s a big change for teachers in how they perform in the classroom, and it’s becoming increasingly popular to have three days off.

“It’s something districts have had to do to be competitive in the work place (hiring),” Hill said.

Stewart countered by saying the switch has been successful in Marsing, favored by parents and students as well as teachers.

“We now have time for staff collaboration and we offer activities for students on Friday, including tutoring and scholarship help,” Stewart said. “A good portion of kids in a small district compete in athletics and now they aren’t missing school on Fridays.”

In Marsing, teachers are required to spend one Friday a month in the building for professional development or collaboration and the four school days increased by about 60 minutes.

“Often I see teachers working on Friday when they are not required to be there,” Stewart said.

Van Orden said a four-day week was financially necessary in some of the districts in her part of the state. Aberdeen saved more than $8,000 on substitute teacher costs, she said, a large amount for such a small district. In her Snake River district, pay cuts were a driving factor to make the switch because the farming community didn’t have a lot of room to increase property taxes.

“I’m sad to see schools go to a four-day week,” Van Orden said. “A student could eventually lose a full year of education and that can’t be good in the overall scheme of things.”

Stewart said it’s important to measure the effectiveness of instruction — as opposed to test results that may not show a direct correlation to the time changes — and make sure there are “no more fluff days” such as movies and parties during class time.

Hill said there are two ways to calculate the success of a four-day school week:

  1. Measure the test score of kids to statewide scores to make sure kids are progressing at the same rates.
  2. Measure college applications, college admissions and admission without required remediation of your high school graduates and compare those statewide.

Van Orden said measuring success should include talking to parents and the community. These decisions should be made locally, without legislative mandates.

“Our parents would not want to go back to five days of school,” she said.

Stewart said “it’s a no-brainer” to switch back to five days if he finds evidence that it’s not working for kids. But so far, four days a week is working in Marsing and parent surveys back that decision.

Hill said it’s not that easy — and maybe impossible — to make the switch back.

“Very few are in a position to go back regardless of what they find,” Hill said. “Adults make the decision and the kids pay the consequences because it’s a good deal for adults.”

Hill offered these questions for district leaders to ask as they consider switching to a four-day school week:

  1. What savings do you expect?
  2. What’s expected of teachers and are they on board?
  3. How will the day off be used?
  4. Are some students losing out?
  5. How do we prevent a backslide?
  6. Do we agree on what success or failure looks like?
  7. How could we go back to five-day?

The Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho and Idaho Education News are sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.