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Industry Reports

Why the 4-Day School Week Could Save the Future of US Public Education

A 4-day school week could help solve a number of key issues plaguing the American education system, including teacher shortages and chronic student absenteeism.

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By Scott Winstead

4 day school week

As school districts across the US struggle to find a way to deal with a host of critical challenges that include severe teacher shortages, chronic student absenteeism, and stagnant funding in the face of growing costs, one innovative solution has been gaining traction: the four-day school week.

Initially popular in rural districts to cut costs, this model has expanded to urban areas as more schools seek to boost teacher retention, enhance student engagement, and optimize educational outcomes.

Four-day school weeks have now been adopted in around 900 school districts across the country, nearly a 40% increase compared to just 5 years ago.

This approach promises significant financial savings as well as a substantial shift in the educational work-life balance, leading some to argue that a shortened week could be the key to revitalizing public education sooner rather than later.

Historical Context and Growth

The adoption of the 4-day school week in the United States has a history that goes back further than you might think.

The model first appeared in the 1930s during the Great Depression and saw an uptick during the 1970s due to the energy crisis, which prompted schools to look for ways to reduce operational costs.

However, it wasn’t until the Great Recession of 2008 that the 4-day school week began to gain significant traction.

Faced with severe budget cuts, many rural districts in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho adopted the shortened week as a means to save money on transportation, utilities, and other expenses.

Fast forward to the present day, the trend has accelerated, especially after the pandemic.

According to recent estimates, approximately 2,100 schools in 26 states have now switched to a 4-day school week. For instance, nearly two-thirds of districts in Colorado and a substantial number in Missouri have adopted the 4-day schedule.

This shift is no longer confined to rural areas; increasingly, suburban and even some urban districts are considering the model.

This growing interest is driven not just by economic necessity but also by the need to attract and retain teachers in a profession that has seen significant burnout and turnover as well as declining rates of new talent entering the field.

The extended weekend provided by the 4-day week is seen as a major incentive, offering teachers a better work-life balance and a much-needed mental health respite.

Similarly, students benefit from the extra day off, which can be used for rest, extracurricular activities, or even part-time work.

The rapid increase in adoption and the expanding geographic and demographic reach of the 4-day school week highlight its potential as a transformative approach in the evolving landscape of public education in the US.

Saving the Future of the US Education System?

It’s no secret that a significant segment of parents, students, and teachers alike are dissatisfied with the current state of education.

The four-day school week offers a range of potential benefits that go beyond simple cost savings, addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing today’s education system.

Teacher Retention and Recruitment

One of the most significant benefits observed in districts adopting the four-day week is an improvement in teacher satisfaction and retention.

Educators often face burnout due to long hours (the average teacher works 540 unpaid overtime hours every year), low pay that hasn’t even come close to keeping up with inflation, and continuous pressure.

A three-day weekend allows them more time to rest, recharge, and pursue personal interests, which can lead to increased job satisfaction and help stop the bleeding from so many teachers fleeing the profession.

This model also makes these districts more attractive to potential hires, offering a better work-life balance, which is especially appealing in a competitive job market.

Student Engagement and Attendance

In some areas of the country, chronic absenteeism rates from students have nearly doubled compared to before the pandemic.

Early data from the RAND Corporation suggests that students in districts with four-day weeks may experience fewer absences.

The added day off can reduce burnout and truancy, giving students a much-needed break to relax and return more focused for the week.

Financial Efficiency

The four-day week can reduce operational costs related to transportation, utilities, and school meals fairly significantly, as much as 20% depending on the expense.

These savings can be redirected into resources that directly impact student learning, such as technology upgrades or specialized educational programs.

Environmental Impact

The four-day school week is also a smart choice from a green perspective.

Fewer school days mean fewer bus routes and reduced energy consumption, which can contribute to a district’s sustainability goals.

This reduction in resource use is not only financially beneficial but also aligns with growing environmental concerns, presenting a green solution for districts

Still Some Hurdles to Overcome

While there’s a lot to love about a future with four-day school weeks, there are some challenges that still need to be addressed to achieve adoption on a grand scale.

The most pressing concern is the impact on instructional time. Critics argue that reducing the number of school days could hinder academic performance, particularly for students who already struggle or have learning disabilities.

To mitigate these risks, some districts that use the four-day schedule have extended the remaining school days to ensure that total instructional hours are maintained.

However, this approach does require careful planning to avoid student and teacher fatigue from longer school days.

Another big challenge is that it could pose childcare issues for parents who have a traditional five-day work week. Many families rely on the stability of a school schedule that aligns with the typical workweek, and a sudden shift could leave them scrambling to find affordable, reliable childcare options for the additional day off.

This situation might not only create logistical difficulties but could also lead to increased costs for families, potentially negating some of the financial savings that the four-day school week aims to provide.

This unintentional “tax” could widen the gap between families of different socio-economic statuses, as those with fewer resources may find it particularly challenging to secure suitable childcare solutions.

Final Thoughts

The four-day school week offers an intriguing potential solution to some of the systemic issues plaguing US public education.

As educational needs continue to evolve, the four-day model may serve as a test case for rethinking how we structure academic environments to better serve students, educators, and communities in the 21st century and beyond.

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