HOMEDALE, Idaho—On Fridays in this small farming community in western Idaho, most kids no longer set foot in the classroom. Instead they can be seen playing sports or working part-time jobs or hunting and fishing with their families. Teachers now get to sleep in or run errands, although most of them still show up at school for training—sans students, and sans some of the typical daily stress.
The town’s school district, which has struggled to cut costs ever since the Great Recession, has joined a growing number of districts across the country that now operate on a four-day week schedule. Although no one is tracking overall numbers, state officials in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon have reported increases in the number of schools shifting to four-day weeks in recent years. In Idaho, the growth has been particularly striking: According to data from the state’s Department of Education, 42 of 115 districts and 11 of 48 charter schools are now on the four-day week. That number has roughly doubled in the past four years.
What’s the appeal? Historically, the allure of saving money has driven districts to lop a day off the school week. But increasingly they are embracing the new schedule for a surprising reason: three-day weekends can actually help children learn better and teachers teach better, at least according to many of those who have tried both schedules. This is particularly true in districts that designate the new “day off” for teacher training and in wealthier or larger communities where students have ample access to extracurricular and enrichment activities and parents have more flexibility to supervise kids over an extended weekend.
There’s next to no empirical evidence proving four-day week schools outperform traditional ones (or vice versa). But the experience in Idaho suggests that America’s faith in a traditional five-day week school calendar might be misguided in some instances—and that the ideal calendar very much depends on the needs and resources of the individual school community.
Like many small rural districts, Homedale officials initially thought switching to a four-day week might save money, but they quickly realized any savings would likely be minimal. In 2011, the Education Commission of the States analyzed districts’ actual savings and found they tend to range from 0.4 to 2.5 percent per year. Teachers usually work the same total number of hours (the school day becomes longer, or the fifth day is designated for professional development) so districts can’t scrimp on salaries. And buildings often have to remain open on Fridays, so utility bills don’t change. Any savings typically come from reduced transportation and cafeteria costs.
In the end, the promise of academic gains lured Homedale leaders to make the switch. And so far, they haven’t been disappointed. Echoing the experience of educators across rural Idaho, several Homedale teachers say that four-day schedules allow for more in-depth instruction during the school week and valuable teacher training on Fridays.
Christine Ketterling, a second-grade teacher at Homedale Elementary, says longer class periods allow her to teach more efficiently. With shorter periods on the five-day schedule, she often needed two days to finish reading a single story to her students. Now, she finishes in one day, dives straight into discussion, and doesn’t spend as much time recapping stories’ plots. In science, the longer periods have opened up more time for multimedia activities after formal lessons. Ketterling will play video clips of chameleons, for example, after an ecology lesson, or she might schedule a video-conferencing session with an out-of-state scientist.
It’s too soon to tell if test scores have improved schoolwide since implementing the four-day week, but Ketterling says her students are performing better on Idaho’s state reading test, which they take three times a year. “I’m not doing anything different, so the only thing I can think of is the four-day week,” she says. Homedale teachers suspect the extra weekend day gives students more time to relax and recharge for the week ahead.
The four-day weeks are helping some teachers learn more, too. At Sage International, a charter school in Boise with an abbreviated week for students, teachers use Fridays for extensive professional development. They share new teaching strategies and reflect on which ones have worked well in their classrooms. That time “allows us to steer the boat in the direction we see fit, and feel more respected as an educators,” says Zach Parker, a history teacher at Sage.
Some superintendents even claim having a four-day week helps with teacher recruitment and retention. Ketterling says Homedale’s four-day week schedule is a “huge incentive” for her to stay there although she could earn a higher salary elsewhere. And superintendent Rob Sauer says he hears from prospective teachers who are interested in Homedale because of the four-day week.
The shortened week is not a new phenomenon. Madison School District in South Dakota used the schedule as early as the 1931–32 school year, offering academics on the first four school days and extracurricular activities on the fifth. The schedule didn’t gain national popularity until the 1970s, though, when high gas prices caused by the 1973 Arab oil embargo left school districts scrambling to curb their energy consumption. School districts in Maine, New Mexico, and Massachusetts all began experimenting with the four-day week, claiming the switch saved heating and bussing costs.
Since the 1970s, many states have moved from enforcing a minimum number of school days per year to a minimum number of instructional hours, allowing the four-day week (and other alternative schedules) to flourish.
While studies examining the four-day week over time have given us little quantitative proof that it helps or hurts student achievement, some schools have seen marginal increases in standardized test scores after making the switch. Others have seen scores dip or remain the same. Even in cases where districts have seen scores change, it’s almost impossible to determine whether changes happened as a result of the four-day week or other factors.
The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped more districts from adopting the four-day schedule, which worries some politicians and education experts. Paul Hill, who chairs the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho and is working on a paper that explores benefits and risks of the four-day week, worries that the switch could lead to long-term bad habits. Though teachers might initially commit to working on Fridays, that motivation could wane over time, especially if districts aren’t paying attention.
Hill also says that though schools are trying to compare test scores from the four- and five-day schedules, they’re not investigating whether the test scores of low-income students disproportionately sink as a result of the switch. (Many schools using the four-day week are so small that they don’t have big enough subpopulations to make statistically valid comparisons.)
Indeed, the slimmer schedule has backfired in some communities that serve mostly low-income students. Several predominantly low-income districts in Kentucky decided to abandon the four-day week after test scores dipped and concerns arose over students missing meals they would have received at school. In Minnesota, the state education department has been ordering districts to revert back to five-day schedules if low-income students, specifically, fail to make academic progress. And in Council, Idaho, where a majority of students receive free or reduced lunch, parents and officials voted to abandon the elementary school’s four-day week schedule after a two-year experiment (students in grades seven through 12 still follow the abbreviated schedule).
Council’s superintendent, Murray Dalgleish, is a vocal opponent of the four-day week. He believes the loss of instructional time, coupled with cost-cutting furlough days that meant teachers lost many Fridays that were intended for professional development, has worsened students’ education. “I really rue the fact that we did this,” he says. “What we’ve done is taken five days and compressed them into four, and made busy lives even busier.” If Dalgleish had his way, the high school would also return to the old schedule, but so far it’s proved too popular with parents and teachers.
Even Courtney Fisher, an energetic second-grade teacher who pushed hard for the new schedule in Council (she had worked at a successful four-day week school in Oregon), came to deeply regret the switch. Her students seemed tired all the time, lacked drive, and even ate more in class. She struggled to keep them engaged during the late afternoon hours.
Council, with a population of about 800, is less than a third the size of Homedale and has few enrichment opportunities other than sports for students on Fridays. Jobs for high schoolers are also scarce. Sometimes, young children even wandered back into Fisher’s classroom on Fridays because they didn’t have anything to do at home. Much how “summer slide” disproportionately affects students from low-income families, consecutive three-day weekends could mean more learning loss for less privileged kids.
Community members in Homedale have banded together to make sure students stay busy on their extra day off, creating a Friday enrichment program in a local church. The program’s instructors communicate with schoolteachers so that Friday activities build on concepts children study at school. Compared with Council, fewer families are poor or working class, so more parents have the flexibility and wherewithal to schedule trips and appointments with their children on Fridays.
At Sage, where only 20 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, most parents can afford to send their children to music lessons or other enrichment activities. Students whose families can’t afford that—or students who feel they need extra help from teachers—can show up to school on Fridays for tutoring. Abie King, an 11th-grader at Sage, says she doesn’t mind spending almost every Friday at school. “I get one-on-one time and that’s how I learn best,” she says.
The success of the school week seems to depend on how schools and communities treat the fifth day. In order to stop learning loss over the three-day weekend, for example, one school district in Oregon made Wednesday, instead of Friday, the day off. This allowed teachers to assign work on a Tuesday that would be due on Thursday, helping to solve the learning loss problem while still giving teachers an extra day for prep work and professional development.
Armed with mostly positive anecdotal evidence from their communities, and research that suggests academic achievement isn’t hurt by the new schedule, districts feel little if any pressure to take back Fridays, even when the switch hasn’t led to financial savings or quantifiable academic improvements. And that’s what worries some critics most: that the four-day week’s growing popularity with adults could eventually erode students’ education—in ways that no one recognizes until it’s too late.
This story was produced by The Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism dedicated to covering the issues facing America’s teachers.