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Commentary: A teacher ponders the four-day week

English teacher Kate Mulcahy wonders whether the four-day school week could help solve budget and professional development challenges.

In today’s budget-strapped schools, everyone is brainstorming the best way to manage dwindling funds without adversely affecting student achievement. As budgets get tighter and tighter, we have to look for more creative solutions. Most of the ideas make my stomach churn.

Cut teachers. Bigger class sizes. Raise fees for after-school activities. Eliminate after-school activities. Slash teachers’ benefits. The list goes on.

Each idea seems to either directly limit a student’s ability to get a well-rounded education or further burden the educators, either professionally or financially.

After repeatedly hearing these ideas, I became almost resigned to the fact that these bleak options were my only choices in these tough financial times. Learning would be compromised and teaching would become more difficult.

But then came the idea of a four-day school week.

I had heard about how the shortened week could cut down on transportation costs, utility costs, and more, but I didn’t think there would be much buy-in considering the debates on whether it would adversely affect student achievement. However, a new study seems to have tipped the scales of the debate.

I came across Ben DeGrow’s commentary on Education News Colorado about new research that shows the four-day school week could actually benefit student learning. This study focused on Colorado, a state with a relatively high percentage of districts using the 4-day school week – usually defined by longer school days and an extra day off, most often Friday.

The research findings seem to surprise all: The four-day school week did not negatively impact students; in fact, math and reading scores actually improved with the shorter week.

This is exciting news, but more in-depth research is needed to fully understand the effect the four-day week has on student learning.

The study does not show a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the improved scores and the four-day structure.  The authors can only pose theories such as “more focused instruction, improved student attendance, and increased morale” to account for the rise in scores. They also admit that schools under this structure score lower on average than traditional schools, yet these schools also scored lower before the change. Nevertheless, the students’ scores did go up and student learning was not compromised.

So what about teaching under this new structure?

I started to think about that extra day and the opportunity it could give the teaching profession. Not so long ago, I wrote a blog emphasizing the importance of giving teachers time for planning and quality professional development. This fifth day in the four-day school week could be just that.

The fifth day could be a day or a half-day of co-planning and professional development. It could be the day when struggling new teachers received support and guidance from experienced teachers. It could be the day when administration could communicate with their staff. It could be so much.

I know that the original function of the four-day school week was to alleviate budget cuts, and I know that compensating teachers for this fifth-day work would cut into the money saved by the four-day structure. However, I also know that this is could be an opportunity to improve student achievement and the quality of teaching. As Ben DeGrow stated in his original piece of the four-day school week, “Perhaps it’s time for a closer look…”

My only request is that we ask more of the four-day school week than just a leaner budget.

So I want to know if this is possible.  Personally, I have never worked or learned under this structure. Therefore I want to reach out to my fellow teachers who have. How do you perceive this structure and student learning?  What is it like to teach longer days and shorter weeks?  Would it be a realistic and beneficial change to use part of the fifth day for co-planning or professional development?

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.