By Maya Pottiger
Originally appeared in Word in Black
As some cash-strapped districts switch to four-day school weeks, experts warn it might be better only as a temporary staffing fix.
As schools returned to in-person instruction following the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul Thompson thought things would go one of two ways.
Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, thought schools would push back on learning in remote environments or shortening the school year, having experienced the challenges they caused.
“People saw all the issues that were caused by moving school away from the traditional five-day school week schedule, moving it out of the brick-and-mortar classroom into a remote environment,” Thompson says.
But there’s a growing movement of districts around the country transitioning to a four-day school week. It’s still a relatively small sample — nearly 900 out of more than 13,000, or about 7% — and they’re generally contained to select states: Oregon, Missouri, Colorado, and Texas, to name a few.
Thompson has been studying the four-day school week since 2017, years before the post-pandemic trend, and says he didn’t expect this.
“I’m actually shocked that it’s continued to increase as much as it has because I thought, in many areas, we would have seen it wasn’t really effective to take students out of the classroom,” Thompson says. “But schools are finding that they can benefit from the flexibility.”
And while the change could benefit the districts, Thompson says his biggest concern is administrators not losing sight of what schools are supposed to focus on, “which is student success.”
Four-Day School Weeks Doubled Over the Last Decade
Prior to his move to Oregon, four-day school weeks were not on Thompson’s radar. But he soon learned that about half of the school districts in Oregon were on a four-day schedule, and there wasn’t much good research on the impacts or effectiveness of it — at the time, districts were making the switch for cost-saving reasons, which were ultimately ineffective.
Seven years after researching four-day school weeks, Thompson has expanded his research from Oregon to nationwide — and then “COVID happened.”
“Now we’re seeing this rapid increase in the use of four-day school weeks across the country for reasons now that aren’t related to cost savings anymore, but more related to teacher retention and recruitment efforts,” Thompson says.
Over the last decade, the number of districts using four-day school weeks has doubled. In the nearly 900 districts that adopted the policy, there are more than 2,100 individual schools, which is up significantly from around 1,600 schools in 2019.
“It’s growing, and it’s growing in several different places,” Thompson says. “Missouri and Texas are the two hot beds currently, and they’re really focused on teacher retention.”
In Missouri, there were 144 school districts using a four-day school week in the 2022-2023 school year, according to Mallory McGowin, the chief communications officer for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This is a 132% increase from 2019-2020, the last pre-pandemic school year, when only 62 districts were using the four-day school week.
With less than 1,000 districts nationwide participating, this is still very rare. But it’s “very important for us to pay attention to,” says William Rodick, Ph.D., the P-12 practice lead at the Education Trust — especially as we get more research on the impacts on students of color and low-income students.
“It is really important for us to pay attention to this policy,” Rodick says, “because once this policy is put in place, it’ll be very difficult to reverse.”
A Short-Term Recruitment and Retention Strategy
On the surface, dropping to a four-day school week doesn’t seem like a common sense recruitment or retention strategy for the various shortages schools are facing. Districts still need those positions — educators, bus drivers, and other personnel — those four days of the week.
But when districts can’t offer increased pay, they’re looking for non-monetary benefits to motivate teachers to come and stay.
Teachers still report to school on the fifth day, but this schedule gives them more flexibility for tasks that are harder to accomplish with students in the room and often add hours to their workday, like lesson prep, grading, and professional development.
“Maybe that helps alleviate some of this stress or post-pandemic burnout that we’ve seen popping up in many places around the country since 2020,” Thompson says. “Whether that is effective, the jury’s still out on that.”
It is really important for us to pay attention to this policy, because once this policy is put in place, it’ll be very difficult to reverse.WILLIAM RODICK, PH.D., P-12 PRACTICE LEAD AT THE EDUCATION TRUST
Though there isn’t yet good research about whether this effectively attracts and retains teachers, let alone high quality teachers, Thompson says there’s anecdotal evidence that applications are up in districts implementing a four-day school week.
In Texas, for example, positions that used to get five applicants are now getting more than 20, according to CBS News Texas. And a Missouri district reported a similar response, receiving 460 applications in the four-month period after announcing the switch to a four-day school week, compared to only 127 applications in the same time period the year prior.
But this isn’t a long-term solution. As one district sees another doing it, it’ll be a domino effect, Rodick says. Then, any potential benefit goes away, and it goes back to who can pay teachers the most.
“It’s steeped in competition,” Rodick says. “The rationale is, as an individual district, I want to attract more teachers from the existing pool, so a four-day school week will be more attractive to candidates. But there’s still a limited pool. So when districts see that happening to their neighbors, they then will also implement the policy.”
A four-day workweek is not a ‘magic pill’ to solve the teacher shortage.DR. FEDRICK INGRAM, SECRETARY-TREASURER OF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
But, to fix pandemic-related issues, “we need all hands on deck,” Dr. Fedrick Ingram, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a statement to Word In Black.
“A four-day workweek is not a ‘magic pill’ to solve the teacher shortage,” Ingram wrote in the statement. “If we’re serious about addressing the learning loss, loneliness and literacy in the wake of the pandemic, we need all hands on deck, not shorter hours that will hurt educators’ efforts to help kids recover and thrive.”
Or, in the case of Oklahoma, mandating a 165-day school year.
So, even though Thompson says we’re “years away” from having enough research to know if this is an effective recruitment and retention strategy, Rodick says districts should consider putting other pipeline builders into place when they implement a four-day school week.
In particular, Rodick says, districts should be building on-ramps for teachers who aren’t purposefully recruited and diversifying the teacher workforce.
“There is still the larger pool that needs to grow,” Rodick says. “A question that I have is what other policies are they putting in place to make sure they’re attracting great teachers, and that they’re attracting a diverse body of teachers?”