Time for a Four-Day School Week?

Long before the pandemic, there were occasional media stories about school districts going to a four-day week. These were generally cash-strapped rural districts where busing ate up a big chunk of the available funding, and kids rode an hour or more, often through dicey weather, to get to class. Not paying bus drivers and turning down the heat were pretty much all that was left to cut for these schools.

Four-day weeks were not a sign of instructional innovation, either—most of these districts simply made the four days longer, to meet seat time requirements set in place by state regulations. Going to an alternative schedule might have been painted as a rosy alternative—our teachers think it’s phenomenal!—but it was clearly a last resort. If parents and teachers found they liked the new schedule, for any reason, it was an unexpected benefit.

I’ve been thinking about this, because I think there’s going to be lots more talk about alternative school schedules, fairly soon. The federal dollars going out to public schools now will likely, thank God, keep ‘problem-solving’ in the wake of a pandemic from forcing public schools to scissor and degrade programming in the immediate future, but I foresee more faux panic over learning loss and insistent conservative belt-tightening.

Schools can’t operate without public money and legislators control that money—so, snip-snip.

I think it’s important to remember that the 180(ish)-day calendar is relatively recent, and that, at various times and places in our history, students went to school as much eleven months a year and little as six months a year—and not always the months you might think would be set aside for schooling.  Local conditions and needs drove school attendance and demographics.

The amount of useful learning accomplished was also driven by context, and available resources. I am always amazed at how the economic engine of the United States was incrementally, but robustly, built using one-room schoolhouses, teenaged teachers and nonstandard calendars and time requirements.

My grandmother remembered two weeks off every fall for apple-picking (her school, Local No. 5, was eventually renamed ‘Orchard View’), and another two weeks for hunting. School was out before planting began. None of her eight brothers and sisters went to high school. No need, if there was food in the larder.

For the past few decades, we’ve been determined to standardize everything—curricula, instruction, assessments, time requirements, teacher qualifications, even materials.  It’s absolutely clear that as neat and tidy and uniform as schooling can be made, more learning is not guaranteed.

A cornerstone of post-Nation at Risk reform was that more time in school equals more learning.  It turns out that’s not true, either.All this rule-making did was make us turn to more and more questionable measurements—testing—and comparisons designed to push kids in poverty toward cheaper, stripped-down educations. In Michigan, for a time, Republican policy-makers were promoting ‘value schools’  which would provide a ‘basic’ education for $5000/per pupil.

Lately, there’s been a spate of articles and talk about getting rid of the five-day workweek. Other nations and individual companies have experimented with the idea and have gotten good or promising results, including increased productivity and employee satisfaction. The pandemic has upended our thinking about going to the office—maybe it’s time to do the same for 7/5/180 schooling? You can hear the wheels turning.

Whenever you start tinkering with the standardized concept of schooling—year-round school, for example, popular for a time as a way of reducing costs through maximizing facility usage—Americans tend to get all nostalgic for those hazy, crazy, etc. summers of their youth and businesses panic about the loss of cheap teen labor. Change is hard, and school is a big component of life in these United States.

Maybe what we need is rethinking our commitment to sameness (since kids are also nonstandard and unequal) and focusing on context-based education. What’s good for a first grader in Mississippi may not be optimum for a high school senior in California. Also: reducing the days or hours our children spend in school runs counter to what other first-world nations are doing. Still, let’s let our imaginations wander.

For younger children—K-5, say—school also fills a need for childcare.This is a deal public education made with the citizenry, long ago, allowing parents to seek gainful employment. School as safe, productive place to stash your kids while you work—that’s not a bad thing.

If there were one place where a five-day week/extended day model is most needed and useful, it would be elementary schools. That doesn’t mean that teachers have to be actively instructing students every moment they’re in the building. In fact, more frequent breaks and supervised playtime are exactly what many children need. I learned this, BTW, from watching the way kindergarten teachers in my district adapted their half-day practice into full-day kindergarten, years ago: more ‘free’ time to use classroom materials, more stories, two more recesses—and way less pressure to get it all done in three hours.

It’s in secondary schools where we might experiment with the idea that less seat time might produce better results. There’s already been a move to have secondary students ‘test out’ of classes, but that represents a shallow concept of what it means to have genuinely learned something.

If we’re going to be satisfied with students’ capacity to merely reproduce facts and information, we devalue the experience of learning and working together–which should be the core reason students go to school. It’s the deconstructing, discussing and applying knowledge that matters—sharing a crazy-good book, calculating the cost of gas and insurance for that car, playing in the pep band on Friday night.

Can that be adequately done in four days/week? Sure. Especially if the fifth day includes access to teachers for questions/chats/encouragement/clarifications, plus some personal goal-setting on the part of students.

Then why send older kids to school for five days?  I think it has to do with our concept of Teacher as Enforcer. Unless there is a teacher prowling the room, we think, kids will slack off.

We’ve just experienced an 18-month experiment in teachers being unable to control students’ attention and compliance—for some educators, it was an unmitigated disaster. For others, the year ended with students expressing more concern over not seeing their friends than reduced learning. Some teachers actually learned to appreciate teaching and learning from home.

I was stunned, in reading about four-day weeks, to see that some districts reduced teacher pay, believing they were working less.  This is further confirmation of the Teacher as Enforcer idea—you have to be in the room with a student for teaching/learning to occur. It’s also confirmation that this ‘value school’ idea—a discount education, good enough for those who don’t pay tuition—has not gone away. Where can we cut corners? Well—if teachers only teach four days a week…

I would suggest that teachers and their organizations begin by re-thinking teacher professionalism: what a teacher demonstrably provides, rather than the hours they’re on duty. That’s just a start.

‘Reimagining’ education has become an overused (and inaccurate) cliché. But if the education community can’t imagine new calendars, schedules and missions, someone else is going to put them in place.

Photo courtesy of Robert Valiant

4 Comments

  1. Your grandmother was so lucky! We only got 1-week deer hunting vacation.

    I am happy to report that when four senior-year buddies and I went hunting, none of us were shot.

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    1. (laughing) Both (MI) districts where I taught had days off for deer hunting. It’s that kind of state.

      I’m not sure if having a week off in November put those kids behind in the almighty international competition we think we have to win.

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  2. Moving to a four day school week at the secondary level does not address the fundamental flaw in the traditional schedule. We need to significantly shorten the time frame for earning credits; ten months is not only too long, but does not provide what most average and marginal students really need: multiple opportunities to reset their chances for academic success (i.e. earning credits toward grade level promotion and HS graduation).

    The solution lies in rescheduling the school year into two independent semesters (with new schedules), with each semester broken into two independent credit periods. This provides students with multiple fresh starts and allows for courses chunked into 10 and 20 week time frames or fine tuned elective courses. The immediate feedback of earning credits every 10 weeks has produced a dramatic improvement in student effort and focus in my middle school. Unfortunately this topic isn’t sexy enough to attract adult reform attention but ask any student and they will fully appreciate the value of shortening the time frame for earning credits and getting four chances per “school year” to succeed!

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    1. This is exactly what I would hope for–a practical solution that worked for your context. A small tweak, really, that made a big difference. Unfortunately, as you point out, reformers are looking for Big Sexy ideas to completely transform something, and base the entire success of that transformation on smoke, mirrors and testing data.

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