Socorro Consolidated Schools in New Mexico, like many school districts, has long had trouble filling open positions.
“When you’ve got young teachers graduating from teacher schools, Socorro is not a place that is going to attract them,” says Ron Hendrix, superintendent of the small district with just more than 1,500 students. “There’s no nightlife, there’s really not anything to pull them here when they could go to Albuquerque, which is an hour away.”
In recent years, the district would regularly start the school year with multiple open positions unfilled. To combat these vacancies the district adopted an increasingly common recruitment tool among rural districts around the country: a 4-day school week. Schools that adopt this non-traditional school week run slightly longer schedules for four days, with teachers and students having one day off (usually Friday).
Between 1999 and 2019 the number of districts offering 4-day school weeks grew from 108 to 662. By the 2022-23 school year, the number of 4-day districts had ballooned to 876 in the U.S.
In the past, a switch to the 4-day school week was often motivated by a desire to save funds, but research indicates that district savings from the change are minimal. Today, the shift to a 4-day school schedule is being motivated by staffing concerns as well as an effort to improve the well-being of students and teachers.
“We’re seeing continued growth of the policy by school districts hoping to use the schedule to attract and retain teachers, which is a shift from the previous, largely financial rationale,” says Dr. Emily Morton, a Researcher at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes of Research.
However, the impact of the schedule change on these factors, as well as academics, is still being debated and studied.
4-Day School Schedule Bright Spots
In a study of 4-day schools in Oklahoma, Morton found that bullying incidents were reduced by 39 percent per pupil and fighting incidents were down by 31 percent per pupil. “Some of that’s mechanical,” Morton says. “Students are there less, so of course, the incidents you would expect to see go down as well.”
However, decreased time in the school buildings doesn’t tell the whole story, as students at 4-day schools are only in school 18 percent less time on average. “So there’s something else going on there that’s a benefit,” Morton says.
The schedule is also tremendously popular with students and parents according to surveys conducted as part of a Rand Corporation report comparing 4-day to 5-day school weeks.
“The approval ratings for the 4-day school week are off the charts,” says Morton, who is also a co-author of the Rand report. “[Parents and students] really love it, and they say that morale is up at school. Kids are feeling more rested. The school climate is better.”
However, when researchers compare the responses of students from 4-day schools to traditional 5-day schools, there is not great evidence of a difference in overall morale. “Parents and students are saying that that’s something that’s happening, but exactly how that’s working and how different it is from a 5-day school week, it’s hard for us to know at this point,” Morton says.
4-Day School Schedule Concerns
The Rand report on 4-day school weeks found that while student test scores generally stayed the same or improved at 4-day schools, scores tended to improve at a slower rate than similar schools with a traditional 5-day schedule. The study examined state standardized tests in grades 3-8 in math and English Language Arts between 2011 and 2019 in Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, Alaska, and South Dakota.
“Both 4-day school weeks and our comparison 5-day school week districts either stayed the same or grew in test performance during our time period, but 5-day school week districts grew faster,” says Christopher Joseph Doss, a policy researcher at Rand Corporation a co-author of the report. “Effectively, student achievement in math and ELA in our study was hurt by the 4-day school week policy because if the districts did not adopt the policy, the students would likely have scored even better.”
The differences between 4- and 5-day schools was small each year but added up over time. “By the end of our 8-year period, these small yearly differences added up to a meaningful difference. Students were 0.15 to 0.20 standard deviations behind their counterparts in 5-day school week districts,” Doss says.
A more recent preprint, which means it has not been peer-reviewed, co-authored by Morton, also found that the 4-day school schedule did not have a positive impact on academics.
“The paper arguably provides the best analysis of the impact of four-day school weeks on student academics to date and finds small, negative impacts of the schedule on students’ spring reading test scores and their school year gains in math and reading,” Morton says.
The negative effects were larger in towns and suburbs. “The impacts of rural four-day school weeks on school year gains are also negative on average for math and reading, but they are comparatively quite small and not statistically significant,” she adds.
Beyond these academic concerns, there are also questions about the schedule’s practicality in many districts. “The 4-day school week is very popular among smaller and more rural districts,” Doss says. “Many people we interviewed in the rural districts either have grandparents that can take care of the kids, were able to rearrange work schedules, or shared childcare with neighboring families. Whether these arrangements are possible in suburban or urban districts is unknown.”
4-Day Schedule In Practice
At Socorro Consolidated Schools, the four-day schedule is working well, Hendrix says. Student graduation rates have increased and open positions are more easily filled. Fridays are used for sports and other extracurricular activities, but the school building stays open with supplementary educational offerings for children who don’t have other childcare options. While teachers are not required to work, they’re encouraged to offer Friday classes based on their passions. For example, a teacher might teach a class on sewing over a few weeks.
“My teachers and my students, it seems like the morale and the energy level in the school is so much better now because they all know Fridays off,” he says. Hendrix would even take things a step further and would like to see a four-day schedule go community-wide among town employees and many businesses. “I think it’d be amazing, especially if you got a small to midsize town where everybody has worked hard for four days, and then you’ve got a long weekend.”
Despite the four-day schedule’s success and popularity at Socorro Consolidated Schools, the district may soon be forced to resume a standard five-day schedule as New Mexico is one of many states rethinking the four-day schedule. “Oklahoma passed legislation banning it but allows districts to apply for a waiver to be eligible to use it based on a variety of factors including test scores,” Morton says. “Missouri and Texas debated banning it this year.”
Hendrix vehemently opposes a proposal in the legislature to eliminate four-day schools in New Mexico and says if the district is forced to return to a five-day schedule he will lose about 50 percent of his teachers. “So I will probably retire,” he says.