Education and Skills

Some schools in the US are switching to a four-day week. Here's why

Officials unveil the newly constructed Sandy Hook Elementary School, including this second grade classroom, built to replace the building torn down after a gunman shot dead 20 young children and six educators in a 2012 massacre, in Newtown, Connecticut, U.S. July 29, 2016. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

Is inflation to blame for the proposal of a four-day school week? Image: REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

Briony Harris
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United States

An increasing number of public schools in the US, especially in rural areas, are moving to a four-day school week.

The idea is to save the local authorities money, for example in reduced heating bills or transport costs, as well as saving on the wages of clerical staff and janitors.

Another motivating factor is the need to recruit and retrain teachers, many of whom find the idea of having an extra day to plan and prepare lessons very appealing since this often eats into precious weekend time.

But there are also obvious disadvantages, including the impact on families with two working parents who need to arrange – and pay – for an extra day’s childcare every week.

And it is also important to consider the impact on a child’s education – whether a four-day school week helps or hinders learning.

Addressing low teacher pay

Oklahoma is a prime example of the trend towards a four-day school week.

More than 200 of the state's schools – in 91 of its 512 school districts – operate on a four-day schedule already.

And thousands of teachers took the decision to walk out of the classroom for nine days in April, demanding more funding and pay rises.

The teachers have been battling real-term wage reductions for 10 out of the past 11 years, as shown by the following chart which takes inflation into account.

Image: Oklahoma Policy Institute

The Oklahoma walkout is part of a wider wave of teacher activism which has also seen strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.

In the US, the lack of morale and pay is having a negative impact on the number of students who decide to train as teachers, with the numbers enrolling in teacher preparation programmes in steady decline.

Image: Education Commission of the States

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a four-day week is helping to address retention and recruitment issues. One Oklahoma school noted that more experienced teachers applied for jobs after a four-day week had been adopted. And another school reported many more applicants for every job opening following the shorter working week.

And an academic study of the four-day week model in the state of Missouri showed that 91% of respondents thought that the school week had improved staff morale in the school district.

France is also notable amongst European countries for experimenting with the school week.

In 2008, the Sarkozy administration decided that children should go to school for six hours a day, four days a week. This was then changed again under President Hollande who instituted a five-day week with wednesday afternoons off.

Now, President Macron has given local authorities the freedom to choose between a four and a 4.5 day week. Reports suggest that a third of primary schools (mostly in rural areas) will change back to a four-day week, another clear signal that the shorter school week is working for some authorities.

Have you read?

But while a four-day working week may be appealing to teachers and local authorities, what about the impact on children and their families?

Concentration concerns

Children doing a shorter week do not normally spend fewer hours in lessons. Rather, they are in school for slightly longer on the other four days.

However, some teachers say that longer days are not always the best learning method for younger children, who have shorter concentration spans.

There has also been some discussion around the impact of a three-day weekend, and whether that means younger children struggle to retain what they have learnt during the previous week.

But these concerns were not supported by the Missouri study: 87% of employees surveyed said a four-day week had had a positive impact on what was taught in class, while 76% said the four-day school week had improved the academic quality of their school district.

A different study, conducted by Mark Anderson of Montana State University and Mary Beth Walker of Georgia State University, found that moving to a four-day week had a positive impact on students’ maths scores.

However, teachers are also extremely aware that parental support – of both the school and the child – are a critical factor in education.

And the Missouri study also highlighted that some parents had not been supportive of the changes.

The best approach is to make sure all stakeholders, including parents and children, are on board with the changes before they are implemented, that study noted.

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