The tricky math of 4-day school weeks

School finance expert Michael Griffith said he once held a neutral opinion about four-day school weeks. Then he took a closer look. 

At least 120 school districts have adopted the four-day school week, and more are currently considering switching to the shorter schedule. The trend has mostly spread to rural counties in Western states, where busing costs can be high because students live far apart. Banner County, Nebraska, and Loving, New Mexico, are two areas currently debating the shorter week, while another New Mexico district recently made the switch

Behind the push is a desire to save money by cutting back on operating costs. Even though the Great Recession is long over, many districts continue to struggle with their budgets and feel pressure from taxpayers to keep spending low. But Griffith found the belief that four-day weeks save money didn’t hold up under scrutiny, especially given teachers and staff continue to receive the same pay, and labor costs represent the bulk of districts’ spending.

“People said, ‘If we move to four days a week, we’ll save 20 percent, because the school will be closed on the fifth day’,” said Griffith, who studied the financial impact on schools as part of his work at the Education Commission of the States. “When you add it all up, it’s not the savings people predicted. It’s closer to 2 percent to 3 percent.”

Even though teachers and staff are working fewer days, they put in the same number of hours, which is why salaries remain untouched. School days typically are extended to ensure the four-day week continues to provide the same instructional time as five-day weeks.

“You won’t save on textbooks. You can’t say you are only using a textbook four days a week and we should get a discount,” Griffith said. “One thing people thought they would save on is transportation, and there is a potential to save there. But with the heating and maintenance of a building, what you find is that the power isn’t completely turned off. You can’t do that in winter, or the pipes would freeze.”

The savings, he said, are “fairly minimal.” 

So why are schools switching? Teachers and employees in the school systems generally enjoy the shorter week, he said. Superintendents, administrative staff and teachers can use the fifth day to plan ahead and finish work that’s difficult to complete while children are in school. It can also help attract new staff to districts that typically have difficulty recruiting.

“We found that the adults like this,” Griffith said. “Who wouldn’t? If my employer said I could work an extra hour and get Friday off, I’d be all over that.”

Supporters of the shorter weeks argue that students are more productive and that families can use the fifth day to run errands or schedule doctor’s appointments. But educational gains are elusive, with a few small-scale studies showing conflicting results, according to the National Education Association’s NEA Today publication

Experienced educators have found the shorter work weeks can be tough on young students, according to the Brookings Institution. The think tank also found very few districts added projects for the fifth day of the week or assigned learning activities for the day, which can turn Mondays into “the first day back from vacation.” 

Families with two working parents or single parents are on the hook for finding day care for the fifth day of the work week. And it can be out of reach for poor parents in some rural areas. One family told NPR that they paid more than $1,500 in child care because of their district’s four-day week. Families in one Minnesota district were projected to spend additional $600 per year on child care because of the shorter week.

To be sure, many families say they like cutting out a fifth day of school, arguing that it helps children feel more enthusiastic about returning to the classroom on Monday. 

“We had 4 day school week and my kids loved it and we loved [it],” one parent wrote in a Facebook comment about Banner County, Nebraska’s debate. “Better test scores all around and come Monday morning my kids were ready and excited to [go to] school.”

Still, some districts have backed away from what turned out to be a short-lived experiment. In 2014, Minnesota ordered seven rural school districts to revert to a five-day schedule after students failed to make satisfactory academic progress

“I used to feel neutral, but after talking to adults at the school districts, I have come out against it because they’re doing it for themselves,” Griffith said. “It’s done for the benefit of the adults and the school, and not the kids.”