Why you should care
The four-day school week echoes the precarious state of public school funding in America.
On Mondays, high school senior Bridget Stoddard isn’t at school — she’s at a Starbucks. Working.
Stoddard isn’t playing hooky. Her Colorado school district, 27J, moved to a four-day week last year. Initially, the change was disorienting for the 17-year-old Brighton High School student, and she worried she wouldn’t be able to adjust to a college schedule. One year later, Stoddard uses the day to stack up work shifts and prepare for the upcoming week.
Stoddard’s district is among an increasing number of districts in Western and Midwestern states that are adopting a four-day school week. Most of the districts are rural and small, but 27J, located on the outskirts of the Denver metro area, became the largest district in the U.S. and the first in a major metropolitan area to transition — joining more than 60 percent of Colorado districts with shorter weeks but longer days to meet the threshold for hours. Only 20 districts in 21 states had four-day school weeks in 2016, according to the National Education Association — a number that has since climbed to 560 districts across 25 states.
[Superintendents] tried everything else and had nowhere else to cut.
Jennifer Davis, co-founder, National Center on Time and Learning
The push has been triggered by economic pressure on districts strapped for cash since the 2008 recession, experts say. In states like Colorado and Oklahoma, it’s been challenging to maintain adequate funding given political unwillingness to raise taxes, says Jennifer Davis, co-founder of the National Center on Time and Learning and a senior adviser at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The four-day week has emerged as a “problem-solving activity” for districts pushed into tight corners, echoes Paul T. Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell. There’s evidence of that correlation: States with the highest percentage of four-day weeks, including Colorado, Montana, Oklahoma and Oregon, rank in the bottom half of per-pupil funding for U.S. states.
The shift is equally about boosting teacher morale and retention, though it’s leaving skeptics and schools grappling with a crucial question: Will helping teachers hurt the most vulnerable students by cutting a class day? That debate, though, isn’t stopping districts from increasingly moving to four-day weeks in part due to a domino effect — once one district moves, others follow. Research so far hasn’t found negative effects of the four-day week, though Davis points out that data on the recent trend is scarce. Many superintendents “felt like they got to the end of the rope,” she says. “They tried everything else and had nowhere else to cut.”
In Stoddard’s district, 27J, the switch was implemented to stem above-average teacher turnover. The community had tried to raise salaries through ballot measures to raise taxes for education, but those failed. Since schools couldn’t pay teachers more, they offered them another benefit: a day off. Administrators met with community members and staff over four months before deciding, says Tracy Rudnick, public information officer for 27J schools. The district had less turnover last year, recruited more experienced teachers and saw over 500 candidates preregister for its job fair, which usually draws 200, says Rudnick.
Some students and teachers appreciate the extra day off. Kathy Gustad, an AP literature teacher with a child of her own attending school in the district, gets more time with her family and for grading. For Kirby Federocko, a junior at Brighton High School, his favorite Monday memory was skiing with friends at Eldora Mountain. Senior Morgan Smith is able to spend more time with her mother, who works for the district. Families moving into the community with a stay-at-home parent reference the four-day week as a draw, Gustad says.
But what has benefited some families has put pressure on others, particularly those who must find and pay for additional childcare. “It is a burden on our community for them,” Gustad says. This burden could disproportionately affect poorer families. Experts worry that the four-day week could mimic the “summer slide,” which is the loss of math and reading skills for lower-income students when school is out of session. With their day off, as in the summer, wealthier students have more opportunities for learning — whether through camps, outdoor activities, volunteering or tutoring.
The shift could deny children a day’s free or subsidized meals that they qualify for, Davis points out. And for students with unstable home situations, unstructured time could erode educational progress. Hill is concerned about rural communities and districts where families don’t have the “same voice as the more privileged ones do” in administrative decidion-making.
This isn’t just about paying teachers enough. For better or for worse, more communities will have to contend with this question as housing costs price residents out of cities and into the suburbs. The district 27J, which had 607 seniors in 2008 and 1,173 in 2018, is the fastest-growing but lowest-funded district in the Denver area. Shortening weeks is but one creative solution.
Poorer districts on the margins of urban sprawl are the ones to watch, says Hill. Higher-funded East Coast states — which have been shifting toward adding time, not axing it — are unlikely to follow, says Davis. Regardless, the fact that schools are even considering such drastic changes underlines the precariousness of education in America, where staff face considerable pressure to do more with less. “We’re still not prioritizing children and education at the level we need to for America to maintain its economic and educational level and standard,” Hill says.
Meanwhile, Rudnick knows that eyes from afar are watching her district. “They’re probably going to watch us for a few years and see how it goes because of our size,” she says. “We are, in a way, the kind of ‘lab rat’ for this.”