The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools try 4-day weeks to keep teachers, and students may pay the price

The policies are popular, but evidence is mixed on the success of these programs

Camellia Jenkins teaches an eighth-grade math class at West Bolivar High School in Mississippi in September while math students from another campus, the McEvans School, join via Zoom due to teacher shortages. (Rory Doyle/For The Washington Post)
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Uncertified teachers are scattered across the Terrell Independent School District about 30 miles east of Dallas, reflecting the system’s desperate response to an acute shortage of teachers plaguing many U.S. schools.

But this week, Terrell ISD received 15 applicants for a position teaching math and 24 for two special-education spots.

Just one thing changed, said Schools Superintendent Georgeanne Warnock: The district announced it would replace its traditional five-day-a-week schedule with a four-day school week. The idea is “to hopefully draw some great people here and keep them here,” Warnock said. “So we’re going to see how it goes.”

About a decade ago, school districts began experimenting with a four-day week in a quest to save money, mostly by reducing transportation costs. By 2019, about 650 districts of more than 13,000 nationwide had adopted the schedule, according to a tally by Paul Thompson, an economist at Oregon State University who has studied the four-day school week, even though studies later found it wasn’t much of a money saver.

Now officials have renewed this push for a very different reason: Acute staff shortages have them trying anything they can to recruit and retain teachers in a tight labor market. Some 200 mostly rural districts have adopted these plans since 2019, and more have announced plans to implement it in the fall.

The idea, if it continues to spread, could change the way children and families experience school.

Wanted: Teachers. No training necessary.

Yet there is almost no evidence that shorter workweeks do the trick for teacher retention. And while the policy is popular with many teachers and families, researchers see serious academic and other downsides, depending on how the programs are structured. Typically the districts lengthen the school day on the four days when school is in session, though not always enough to make up for the lost time.

In prior years, four-day weeks have been concentrated in Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon. More recently, the idea has spread across Missouri, where 1 in 4 school districts are operating four days a week, and in Texas, where about 60 districts (out of more than 1,000) have adopted the idea, according to one count. Participation has been overwhelmingly in rural areas, but there are spikes of interest now in suburbs, too.

Teachers unions and some state officials are skeptical.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, complained that such policies could be used as a rationale to avoid increased funding for schools and raising teacher pay.

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“A shortened workweek is not a ‘magic pill’ to solve the problem of educator shortages and, in some cases, could be wielded as an excuse by administrators not to invest in schools,” she said in an email. “We risk cutting our way to lower support with the same expectations.”

Some also cite concerns over who will care for the children of working parents, though a large study by the Rand Corp. found very few families worried about this, and some districts offer child care. One study did find an increase in juvenile crime associated with a four-day week.

In Missouri, where the number of four-day districts surged from 62 three years ago to 144 this year, the president of the state Board of Education, Charlie Shields, voiced concern that shorter weeks will hurt student learning.

“I think, rightfully so, there’s a lot of concern. Is that the right thing for students, and is there any data that shows that moves us in the direction of greater student achievement?” he asked at a state school board meeting in January. “I think at this point, there is not that data out there, but districts continue to move in that direction.”

Evidence regarding academic achievement in four-day districts is mixed, with some studies showing no impact and others finding losses compared with students at traditional five-day-a-week schools.

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Thompson’s research concluded that districts can maintain academic achievement levels if they do not significantly cut back on instructional hours — either by lengthening the school day or the school year.

In most cases, however, time in class is reduced. The Rand study found that, on average, four-day districts’ days were 49 minutes longer. But over the course of the year, students had 58 fewer hours in school, more than a week’s worth of classes.

Thompson also questioned whether the policy will actually help recruit teachers. In some regions, one district’s decision to move to a four-day week has been followed by others in the area who fear being at a competitive disadvantage.

“You don’t want to be the only district in your labor market offering a five-day week,” he said. “What are the ramifications if everyone switches?”

Others counter that the issue isn’t competition with other districts but with other professions.

“Teacher burnout is very real, and this is a tremendous solution to that burnout,” said Dale Herl, superintendent of the Independence School District, which serves about 14,200 students in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., and is one of the larger districts to adopt the policy.

He said his district received 460 applications for teaching positions between December, when the policy was adopted for next year, and early March. That compares with 127 in the same period last year. A year ago, he added, 83 staff members had submitted notices of retirement or resignation; this year, that number is 46.

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Mindful of the research on instructional time, Herl said his district will lose very little. School will be out on Mondays, but partly because holidays often fall on Mondays, the school year will be reduced by only 15 days. The district also plans to move days off for teacher professional development, which used to be on Fridays, to Mondays. The district also is adding 35 minutes to each school day, he said, enough to deliver an equivalent number of teaching hours.

In addition, he said, academic support will be available on Mondays for those who have fallen behind, and high school students will be able to take community college courses on their off days. The extra programming, along with a reduction in charges for child care when school is out, means the program probably will cost the district more money — a sign of how dramatically the rationale for the policy has changed over time.

“We know we won’t save any money doing this,” he said.

In Texas, where there’s been a spike in interest, the decisions appear to be popular with teaching staffs and some communities, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. But he said he has seen mixed evidence and has no opinion about whether it makes sense to switch.

“I do believe that teachers are exhausted,” he said. “This is one way that some communities are trying to answer that, but it’s not the only way.”

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