The number of school districts opting to move to a four-day school week is on the rise, and superintendents of districts that have made the switch say that it helps with teacher recruitment and retention.

Chris Fine, superintendent of the Lathrop School District in rural Missouri, said they decided to transition to a four-day week in 2010 strictly for financial reasons. In time, they found another key benefit: It attracted teaching candidates.

“I don't remember even thinking that attracting and retaining teachers was an issue. It wasn’t even a consideration,” Fine said. “For us, (moving to four days) was strictly about saving some money at that time. But certainly, in the next few years, we realized that we had a lot more applicants and quality applicants than we had in the past, so it took on that tone pretty quick.”

Over the past two months, reporters from CNHI Newsrooms nationwide have sought to examine the growing shortage of teachers in some geographic regions and some subject areas and to identify the issues that may be driving it as well as potential solutions for this multi-part special report, "Leaving the Classroom."

Reducing days

In the early 2000s, about 100 school districts across the country decided to cut the school week short. Now, as many as 850 school districts nationwide have made the switch, with many more likely coming, said Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University.

“Anytime schools are facing critical resourcing issues, either state budget cuts or issues filling teaching and staff vacancies, I think schools are always looking for something that can attack that problem at very low cost, at least financially for them, and the four-day school week fits that criteria,” Thompson said.

District leaders of mostly rural communities with less than a few thousand students say they initially bought in to the idea as a cost-saving measure. In theory, if schools are open one fewer day per week, there would be fewer expenses such as bus fuel, electricity and heat, even though there was little research to back up those claims, Thompson said.

Now districts are turning to four-day weeks for another reason: teacher recruitment and retention.

Janie Sims, superintendent of Athens Independent School District in Texas, said her district has seen a significant improvement in the quality of teachers they are able to recruit since moving to a four-day week.

Prior to the switch in fall 2019, Sims said they were hiring teachers at the start of their career, many of whom would move on after a couple of years. Now, the four-day week is enough of an incentive for teachers in the middle of their career to come to the district, she said.

Because the four-day school week is still a relatively new concept, it will take time to understand its overall impact on teacher recruiting and retention, Thompson said.

“Keeping good teachers in these districts seems critical, and if the four-day school week allows them to do that, well, maybe this is a good policy to consider,” Thompson said. “Over the next five years, I think we'll know a lot more about whether or not this was successful at retaining teachers … If we see it being successful recruiting teachers, then I think we can maybe see more schools making this switch.”

Academic impact

An oft-cited concern with the four-day school week is the impact it could have on student academics.

While most districts make each remaining school day longer to accommodate the shorter week, that doesn’t necessarily translate into more teaching minutes, said Emily Morton, with the education research organization NWEA.

“We still don't really, totally understand how time ends up being used. So if you take Friday and you put it into Monday through Thursday, does math go from being 40 minutes to an hour? What do teachers do with that extra 20 minutes? Do they go on to the next lesson? Do they use that extra time for support? Those are questions that I'm really interested in and we don't really quite have answers on yet,” Morton said.

Morton said her research has found a consistent small to medium negative effect on student achievement in four-day schools. She said she doesn’t look at one district’s scores over time but rather compares them to similar schools with five-day weeks.

She added that it is difficult to determine what impacts academics because each district structures its four-day week differently.

Fine and Sims said they have seen little to no academic impact since moving to a four-day schedule.

Melonie Hau, superintendent of Newcastle Public Schools in Oklahoma, said the four-day week has actually enhanced the educational experience for her students, who use the fifth day to do internships, study or work in jobs.

Other considerations

Hau added that stakeholder support is key. While a district may feel the change is necessary, it won’t work if some in the community aren’t on board, she said.

“School leaders really need to make sure that they're meeting the needs of their students and their community when they think about going to a four-day week,” she said.

All three superintendents said that as long as their community and staff continue to enjoy the schedule, their districts won’t return to a five-day week in the near future — and they may never return at all.

“There is no wanting to go back. It's pretty much what we do right now,” Fine said.

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