Embracing the Four-Day School Week

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine, School Staff Shortages

March 01, 2024

It’s gaining in popularity to address teacher retention, but what’s the real impact on students and their learning?
Dena Naccarato, a woman in red blouse and black skirt with white cardigan, leaning against a sign that says Post Falls School District 273 District Office 206 Mullan Avenue
Dena Naccarato, superintendent in Post Falls, Idaho, introduced the four-day week a year ago in hopes of retaining teachers. PHOTO COURTESY OF DEVIN WEEKS/COEUR D’ALENE/POST FALLS PRESS

Dena Naccarato, superintendent of the Post Falls School District in northern Idaho, was losing teachers, and the reasons were primarily economic. The cost of living in the community had skyrocketed, and plenty of people, teachers included, were selling their homes and moving to less expensive parts of the country. If they stayed, they increasingly were lured away by the $20,000 or $30,000 pay bump offered at nearby school districts across the border in Washington.

In 2022, Naccarato started researching a solution that hundreds of other districts across the country have implemented for similar reasons: the four-day school week. The benefits of an extended weekend, she reasoned, might provide Post Falls with an advantage over those higher-paying districts and net some other benefits, too.

Last fall, a month into Post Fall’s first school year with a four-day week, it was too soon to measure many advantages, but there was one big one already. The need for substitute teachers was cut in half in September, saving the district with just under 6,000 students about $20,000. “I do think our staff is happier,” Naccarato says. “They’re more refreshed.”

Escalating Interest

Across the country, the number of school districts adopting the four-day school week has exploded — 2,100 schools in 900 districts are currently operating with the schedule, according to Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University whose research has focused on the impact of the four-day instructional week.

But while school leaders say the four-day week, with typically a Monday or Friday as the off-day, is bringing relief to educator attrition and substitute teacher costs, researchers and lawmakers are raising alarms about the modified schedules’ effects on students.

Superintendents who are adopting the schedule hear those concerns. Some districts have returned to a five-day week. For now, without the political will to make teaching a more lucrative and less stressful profession, the four-day calendar is helping them keep teachers in classrooms.

“We really need to think about the underlying causes of why we don’t have enough qualified and dedicated [teachers] or at least people interested in the profession,” says Adam Leckie, superintendent of Arizona’s Casa Grande Elementary School District, which adopted the schedule in 2022. “That’s going to be a problem that can’t be solved with a four-day week. But it is going to slow down some of the issues.”

Economic Influences

The four-day school week is hardly new, and its popularity has mostly followed the ups and downs of the U.S. economy.

The first instance popped up in the late 1930s and grew into a small, but more substantial number during gas shortages of the 1970s, Thompson says. The schedule is particularly popular in rural communities and Western states where school districts’ geographic areas can be quite large.

Over the past two decades, interest has surged. During the Great Recession, the economic downturn triggered a spike amid budget cuts. As in Post Falls and Casa Grande, the most recent wave comes around the question of educator retention and hiring during a time of perceived declines in teacher morale, Thompson says.

“We’re seeing massive adoption in places like Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, using the four-day school week as a way to try to deal with teacher shortages and teacher burnout that have come out of the pandemic or started even before the pandemic,” he says.

Research Mixed

Despite that long history, academic research into the outcomes is just beginning. Early research is finding mixed results when students, on average, attend school for 148 days instead of the 180-day national average. “The biggest takeaway here is don’t make a rash decision around adopting the four-day school week,” Thompson says.

In a 2022 research paper titled “Only a Matter of Time? The Role of Time in School on Four-Day School Week Achievement Impacts,” he studied student learning in four-day schools in 12 states. Districts with the lowest amount of instructional time because they didn’t extend the school day or school year much to make up for the lost classroom time saw declines in achievement, according to the study. Districts that added back most of the seven hours lost when moving to a four-day calendar saw no difference in outcomes.

A 2021 report from RAND Corporation, which considered outcomes in several states with four-day schools, found student achievement either stayed the same or continued to improve in districts with four-day schedules. But compared to students who attended school five days per week, student achievement didn’t grow as quickly and that matters, says Christopher Doss, a RAND policy researcher who worked on the report.

“It’s not a huge drop in test scores. But every year, they grow a little bit slower,” says Doss, a former high school science teacher. “Over time, that can accumulate into something that we should be concerned about.”

John Kuhn, a white man with a beard standing at a podium wearing a tan suit jacket, plaid shirt and jeans
John Kuhn, superintendent in Mineral Wells, Texas, moved his 1,700-student district to a four-day week after losing four teachers. PHOTO COURTESY OF MINERAL WELLS, TEXAS, SCHOOL DISTRICT

A lack of large-scale data supporting four-day calendars is prompting lawmakers in some states, including Texas and Missouri, to question whether it’s right for students and communities. A Democratic state senator in Missouri, Doug Beck, introduced a legislative bill in December that requires larger districts to ask voters to approve any move to a four-day schedule and incentivizes schools to remain on the five-day calendar.

“Nobody has ever said once that going to four days is better for kids,” says Beck, a former school board member in the Affton School District near St. Louis. “No one has ever said it is better for learning. They’ll say it hasn’t hurt. But the research is so limited. …. We don’t know.”

Community Impacts

But while academics and lawmakers may be raising concerns, superintendents say they have little choice as they struggle to hire educators. Teacher retention was a primary concern when Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas moved to a four-day schedule for the 2022-23 school year. Superintendent John Kuhn thought the idea was “gimmicky” until he lost a veteran teacher to a nearby school system that had made the calendar adjustment.

“We lost four teachers total to these four-day week schools while we were having the conversations with the board about it,” says Kuhn, a superintendent for 14 years.

The move to a four-day schedule has increased the quantity and quality of applicants, he says, adding, “I think they’re choosing us even though they could make more money elsewhere because of the four-day week.”

Teachers organically started sharing on social media how they were spending that extra day with their families. That’s proof to Kuhn that the four-day week provides work-life balance for teachers, ensuring they’re at their best in the classroom.

“I’ve heard the criticisms from people who say time on task is super important for learning. But in my mind, quality time on task is what’s important, not just time,” Kuhn says. “I can give my kids four days a week with an excellent teacher. I’m not sure that’s a worse deal than five days a week with a mediocre teacher.”

To offset community impacts or learning loss, superintendents say they’ve been mindful to protect instructional time and fill in gaps for families and the community when school schedules are reduced.

To make up for the lost classroom time, schools often extend the daily bell schedule, expand the school year or reduce vacation days. Casa Grande in Arizona ended early-release Wednesdays and added 30 minutes to the daily schedule, so students are missing 2.5 hours of classroom time per week instead of a full day.

Districts that have made the move to a four-day week have set up opportunities for meals and child care for students whose families can’t support those needs on the fifth day. Mineral Wells provides optional remediation on most Fridays for students in 4th grade and under. As many as 1,700 students qualify for the care, but, by the end of last school year, only about 20 participated. Low use of fifth-day programs like this apparently is common.

“A lot of the critics raise up the issue that … the reason why you shouldn’t be able to do it is it’s really hard on these families,” Kuhn says. “In reality, what we found is families have options — even your poorest families.”

And they’re evaluating outcomes. Superintendent Byron Hurst arrived at the 1,500-student Bogalusa City Schools in Louisiana last summer after the school board had approved a four-day schedule a few months earlier.

“As a leader, I made it very clear that if we don’t see any improvement in academic performance, any improvement in employee attendance, student attendance, then we have to ask the question, ‘Is the four-day work week working?’” says Hurst, who earlier served nine years on a school board in another district. “And if we can’t answer those three questions, then we have to do what we need to do to support our students.”

A Difference Maker

Some districts do change their minds. With just 118 students, Lutie School District in Missouri’s Ozarks moved to a four-day schedule in 2019. At the time, the rural district struggled mightily to find substitute teachers whenever teachers, many of whom commuted 45 minutes to school each day, needed to take time off for medical appointments.

The four-day week was a selling point to prospective teachers — until other nearby districts adopted the abbreviated schedule, says Kathalee Cole, Lutie’s superintendent and high school principal. “The [hiring] incentive is no longer there.”

But another issue has since emerged: deep pandemic-related learning loss among its students. Lutie returned to a five-day week in August  and added free child care and a workout room for its staff.

The day care, Cole says, probably helped her retain two teachers who had babies last spring. And it has allowed her to grow her pool of substitute teachers, who can take advantage of the free care when they work, from one teacher to six.

“Teaching nowadays is so hard,” Cole says. “It is not like it was whenever I started many, many years ago. It’s a different environment. Kids are different. Teachers are leaving the profession hand over fist. We need to be doing everything that we possibly can in order to keep them.”

Limited Alternatives

Whether through a four-day week or free child care, supporting teachers so they can educate students is the ultimate goal, superintendents say. Without broader support for public education, they have few options.

“This is an outside-the-box way of saying what else can we offer our staff,” Kuhn says of the four-day week. “We can’t afford to stop looking for ways to meet the needs of our teachers because it’s an extremely competitive marketplace, and there aren’t enough quality teachers to go around.”

In Post Falls, Naccarato doesn’t just hear support from teachers for the four-day week. Parents, especially those with students engaged with sports or clubs, tell her they’re happy for the reduced instructional week. “The Friday gives them a moment to breathe and hang out with their families and get ready if it’s a Friday night football game or volleyball game,” she says. “It seems to be making a difference.” 

Sarah Hall is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.

Why We Transitioned to a Four-Day Week

By Paula Patterson

Paula Patterson, a Black woman with straight long brown hair smiling wearing pearls and a red suit

It’s August 2023, and the beginning-of-school aura in Crosby, Texas. Yet the feeling in the air is not the usual hustle and bustle of starting a new school year. There is great anticipation over a new way of doing school.

In 2023-24, the 6,800-student Crosby Independent School District, located northeast of Houston, became the largest school system in the state to embark upon a hybrid academic calendar that has students and staff members off most Fridays, creating essentially a four-day school week.

How did we get to this dramatic development of a school week schedule? And why would we choose such a bold change in a public school district of our size?

A Hybrid Option

We found ourselves in the middle of the teacher vacancy challenge, along with most other school districts nationwide. The rise in vacancies and the challenge to fill those vacancies could not be ignored. Our students in Crosby were depending on those of us in leadership to figure out how to recruit and retain teachers who would offer them exceptional learning opportunities. We answered that call by way of a hybrid calendar with four-day instructional weeks.

Students and teachers come to school in Crosby now for seven hours and 50 minutes on Mondays through Thursdays with Friday used for staff development once a month. Teachers are not scheduled on other Fridays. On their one Friday workday, teachers attend training in the mornings and use the afternoons to call parents, grade papers or plan lessons for the next week.

We also found it useful to begin in August with a traditional schedule to establish the school year routine for our families. Once we moved past Labor Day, we transitioned to four days. The combination of four- and five-day weeks allows us to deliver quality instruction beyond the state-mandated minimums. Each school day has an additional 20 to 25 minutes added to instructional time, meaning the hybrid calendar is simply a different way of dividing up the same instructional time.

Public Input

The journey to an altered school week began with soliciting feedback from all stakeholders. We launched three phases of surveys to hear from staff members, parents, community members and students. We heard loud and clear from our students that they were all for the new calendar (surprise surprise!).

That was not necessarily the case for other stakeholders in Crosby. We revised our proposal based on that feedback. For instance, we initially planned Mondays as the off day. We heard from parents that Fridays worked best for their schedules, so we changed the plan from Mondays to Fridays off through mid-April, at which point we will return to five days a week of instruction through final exams.

Central-office staff continue to work five full days throughout the year.

Legitimate Concerns

There were mixed feelings expressed about this drastic change in how we do school. In all surveys, most people chose the hybrid schedule over a schedule that featured traditional five-day weeks all year. We moved forward and presented the calendar to the district’s board of trustees, which approved the calendar by a 4-3 vote.

The two largest concerns surrounding the new calendar were child care and meals for low-income families that relied on school breakfasts and lunches. Both were valid concerns. We believed so much in the power of ensuring exceptional teachers in the classrooms that we worked to find solutions.

We partnered with a nearby YMCA-based program to provide child care on Fridays at $75 per month. The Houston Food Bank came through with programs for meal support. Our district’s Backpack Buddies program was extended to cover 3-day weekends. The food bank also partnered to distribute food at no cost to families in need, and we designated the grocery distribution for each Thursday.

We also took advantage of this time to teach our students to be service-minded. Our high school students work the food drive with a different student organization taking the lead each week.

Current Support

After the first semester on the hybrid calendar, we can say it has been successful. We began the school year with a 70 percent improvement in the teacher vacancy fill rate over the previous year, and the new hires were mostly veteran teachers from other communities. Our “why” for undertaking the new schedule was to attract excellent teachers for our students, and that was reached.

Other benefits derived from the four-day calendar have been substantial. Recent surveys conducted in preparing for the 2024-25 academic calendar showed support has grown from about 60 percent to more than 80 percent. Support exists among many parents, including skeptics-turned-believers.

One mother who staunchly opposed the proposed change shared with me that she now looks forward to Fridays to check in with her kids on their weekly assignments. Another mother says Fridays give her family a breather before a busy weekend of soccer games, birthday parties, church, etc.

Solving the teacher vacancy challenge in Crosby (which is also where I attended school) is one of my proudest accomplishments as superintendent. We faced a challenge that was greatly affecting our students, and we found a way to solve it. We are recruiting and retaining the best teachers for our students. The hybrid calendar was the right move for them.

Paula Patterson is superintendent of Crosby Independent School District in Crosby, Texas.

What to Consider About Moving to a Four-Day Week

As more school districts consider the significant move to a four-day school week, superintendents who made the transition shared several suggestions.

Gauge interest.

Survey your school community — parents, teachers and staff — about their interest. Dena Naccarato, superintendent of Post Falls School District in Idaho, suggests laying out exactly what the new calendar might look like, how school hours might be adjusted each day and what supports will be available for families on those fifth days.

In Post Falls, she surveyed staff and parents three times before a four-day school week was approved by the school board. The first survey gauged their general interest in the idea. The next two homed in on the support for specific calendars and plans. Most parents and staff were on board.

“It’s got to be something your community is telling you that they want to try or support,” Naccarato says. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Protect instructional time.

Class time isn’t the only activity happening inside schools. Clubs, sports, schoolwide events, pep rallies and more are all part of the equation. Moving to a four-day week will require school leaders to think deeply about those extra activities and may require some tough decisions.

“You’ve got to protect instructional time,” says Byron Hurst, superintendent of the Bogalusa City Schools in Louisiana. “At the end of the day, it’s all about growing students, the whole child, the whole student.”

Prepare teachers.

Moving to a four-day school week shouldn’t involve simply nixing Mondays or Fridays from the calendar and moving on. Superintendents must prepare teachers for adjustments to in-class time, revising the pacing of curriculum to ensure the required concepts are covered. They also must plan ways to keep students engaged during longer classes or school days.

“You have to mentally prepare your employees that although the weeks are shorter, the days will be longer, which could pose a challenge to some,” Hurst says. “Time management and planning is going to be very essential.”

With fewer hours with their students, he recommends preparing faculty members to be mindful of the shortened week as they take care of their own needs. Encourage them to set medical appointments on the noninstructional weekday.

“It is a great recruitment tool,” Hurst says. “But you have to mentally prepare your faculty that we have to be mindful that we only have four days now. So, we need you to use that Friday or Monday to take care of your business.”

Put in place community supports.

Moving to a four-day school week will require a communitywide effort, and districts must fill any gaps in community service needs. “Really listen to what the needs would be and anticipate those to help provide support options,” says Adam Leckie, superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona.

That may mean setting up child care options when school is out, whether through the school or agency providers such as the Boys & Girls Clubs or child care centers. For children who receive free or reduced-priced meals, schools should work with community partners to ensure those needs are met. Advises Hurst: “If you have those community stakeholders or partnerships that you can establish before you even go to the four-day school week, get that in place.”

—  Sarah Hall

Additional Resources

What’s the existing research say about the merits of the four-day school week?

Rural vs. Non-Rural. A multi-state, student-level analysis found student achievement declines are larger in nonrural schools than rural schools and larger for female students.

“A Multi-State, Student-Level Analysis of the Effects of the Four-Day School Week on Student Achievement and Growth” by Emily Morton, Paul Thompson and Megan Kuhfeld. Annenberg Institute, Brown University.

Urban Impacts. Research in a large Colorado district that moved to a four-day week found a decline in home prices, a 5 percent decrease in teacher retention for experienced teachers and a slight decrease in student test scores.

“How Do Homeowners, Teachers, and Students Respond to a Four-Day School Week?” by Adam Nowak, Frank Perrone and Patrick Smith. Annenberg Institute, Brown University. 

Juvenile Crime. Rural law enforcement agencies in Colorado saw a 20 percent increase in juvenile criminal offenses after the adoption of a four-day school week.

“Juvenile Crime and the Four-Day School Week” by Stefanie Fischer and Daniel Argyle. Economics of Education Review.

Fighting and Bullying. School districts in Oklahoma with a four-day week saw a decrease in bullying and fighting and experienced no “detectable effect” on ACT scores or student attendance.

“Effects of 4-Day School Weeks on Older Adolescents: Examining Impacts of the Schedule on Academic Achievement, Attendance, and Behavior in High School” by Emily Morton. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

Cost Savings. District savings on operating expenses totaled between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent after moving to four days.

“What Savings Are Produced by Moving to a Four-Day School Week?” by Michael Griffith. Education Commission of the States.