4-day school weeks lead to lower grades, study reveals

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A four-day school week certainly sounds like a good idea from a student’s perspective, but a recent study by a team at Oregon State University finds making three-day weekends permanent would be bad news for children’s grades. Study authors found that high schoolers participating in a four-day school week performed worse on a series of standardized math tests than their peers sticking to a typical five-day schedule.

Interestingly, scores dropped even more among students attending non-rural schools, but the impact only seemed to impact math grades. Students across both experimental conditions (four-day week vs. five-day week) displayed roughly the same reading scores.

The idea of switching to a four-day week has increasingly picked up steam in both schools and offices nationwide in recent years. Many argue that an extra day off helps workers and students alike perform and learn at a higher level the rest of the week. Advocates of the four-day school week say the schedule is also very attractive for teachers, helps adjust for students’ extracurricular schedules, and aids in cutting overall district costs.

Will shorter school weeks take off after COVID?

Many schools have already tried a trial run. During the 2018-19 school year, 1,607 schools all over the United States, including 1.2 percent of all K-12 schools, adopted a four-day week. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and shift towards online learning has encouraged many more school districts to at least consider a shortened week.

While the idea no doubt holds promise, study authors caution that implementing a four-day school week requires thoughtful, well-planned execution.

“These bigger cuts seem to be happening in non-rural areas that haven’t thought through all the details of implementation — they may be moving to four-day school for short-term reasons, like cost savings,” says lead study author Paul Thompson, a professor in OSU’S College of Liberal Arts, in a university release. “That’s different from what we’re seeing in rural areas, where it’s really a lifestyle choice for these schools, and they’ve thought a lot about how they should structure their schedule.”

The state of Oregon features the fourth-most schools in the nation offering a four-day academic week. More specifically, 137 schools across 80 districts hold classes only four times weekly, which constitutes about 11 percent of the more than 1,200 K-12 schools in the entire state. Most of these schools happen to be located in rural regions, especially Eastern Oregon.

Prof. Thompson had already analyzed the impact of four-day weeks on elementary students, middle school students, and entire school districts. However, this is the first project to focus only on high school students.

Math needs more attention

In all, researchers analyzed data on 341,390 high schoolers between 2005 and 2019. High school students in the 11th grade attending school four days per week scored slightly lower on math achievement tests than their peers still going to school on Fridays. Moreover, four-day students living in non-rural areas performed slightly worse on math tests than those in more rural regions. Importantly, study authors accounted for various non-schedule related factors that may have influenced academic grade outcomes as well.

So, why is extra in-person classroom time so important when it comes to high school math? The research team speculates that parents just can’t replace a qualified math teacher when it comes to the complex mathematical concepts children learn in high school. We’re talking about equations that are a bit more complex than “five times six” or “81 divided by nine.”

“It’s much easier to help with addition and subtraction than to help with algebra and calculus,” Prof. Thompson explains.

What does the 4-day week look like?

As far as why schools are deciding to make the switch to four days, study authors observed that rural schools are looking to reduce absenteeism due to students traveling for sports or other activities — not so much to save money.

In these four-day week programs, normal school days run a bit longer — roughly from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. On the one weekday kids are not in school, these districts usually offer further extracurricular activities to help make up for the lost time in class. On the other hand, schools that switch to four days to save money don’t usually change class hours or offer extra activities over extended weekends.

“The school districts driving these achievement differences are the ones that have really low levels of instructional time,” Prof. Thompson notes. “That’s something schools have to reckon with in the pandemic, as well: How can we maintain instructional time in the absence of in-person learning?”

Kids actually miss more class during 4-day weeks

Technology and the ease of remote learning will no doubt play a major role in this trend moving forward as well. Study authors add it’s never been easier, and will likely become even simpler, for teachers to “boost instruction time” in schools that move to four-day weeks by offering supplemental online learning materials.

“With technological advancements, asynchronous teaching could be a substitute for in-seat time. It may be an imperfect substitute, but it would be better than nothing else,” Thompson concludes.

Finally, researchers also investigated absenteeism specifically, which is often cited as a major reason why schools switch to a four-day week. Interestingly, however, chronic absenteeism rates actually appeared to increase among student populations following a switch from five school days per week to four.

The study is published in the journal Education Economics.

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