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Commentary: Could four-day weeks be beneficial?

Ben DeGrow is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute, focusing on education labor issues.

As last year’s election season came upon us, I was pleased with the opportunity to debate state senator Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) on 9News about his statewide education tax increase measure, Proposition 103. Three of the primary reasons he cited as evidence of school district cutbacks allegedly causing adverse effects on students and families were larger class sizes, extra fees and four-day school weeks.

The first two factors can be saved for another conversation.

This week, though, I stumbled across an interesting study, featured on the Governing website under the headline “Four-Day School Week Could Boost Student Performance.” Really, I thought? How would you explain that? A lot of studies cross my desk, and I don’t get time to look at them all. But this one focused specifically on Colorado. So how could I resist?

As the study authors — economists D. Mark Anderson (Montana State) and Mary Beth Walker (Georgia State) — note, more than 60 of Colorado’s 178 school districts have cut either Friday or Monday out of the regular school schedule. These tend to be smaller, rural districts. The authors also cited a 2010 CDE survey in which most administrators listed “financial savings” as the motivation for cutting a day out of the school week. Not exactly new for those who closely follow education in Colorado.

But it’s the bottom line of Anderson and Walker’s research that deserves further scrutiny and discussion:

The results presented in this paper illustrate that academic outcomes are not sacrificed under the four-day week; in fact, we provide some evidence that math and reading achievement scores in elementary schools actually improve following the schedule change…. Specifically, using data from the Colorado Department of Education, we find that scores on math achievement tests increase by roughly 12 percent after the switch to a four-day week schedule. The estimated impact of the four-day week on reading achievement is always positive in sign but is generally smaller in magnitude and estimated with less precision….

I’ll leave it to the academics to parse out the methodology and the fine print, and to place the study in the larger context of research on the question. But the findings are enough to give pause, or some small degree of reassurance, to local policy makers. I certainly wouldn’t recommend a statewide mandate for schools and districts to switch to four-day weeks. It’s a matter of local concern, and those most directly affected have to chime in and to buy in.

However, such research may inform or persuade their decisions. They also likely would want to know what might explain the positive findings. The study’s authors offer as possible explanations greater teacher flexibility, reduced teacher absenteeism, more focused use of instructional time, and improved student attendance. They also suggest the possibility that the flexible scheduling may benefit student-athletes and some parents.

While there always will be other factors to consider in making a significant scheduling change like so many Colorado school districts have done, I find it noteworthy that switching from a five-day to a four-day school week might actually prove beneficial to student learning in some contexts.

Thus, the four-day week may lose its luster as a plank for K-12 tax hike advocacy. Many school districts made the switch for financial reasons. How much cost savings have they realized, though? Perhaps it’s time for a closer look — and time to dust off that copy of Stretching the School Dollar

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.