Long days, long weekends: the four-day week takes off in US schools (2024)

On fall Fridays at Hull-Daisetta high school, in the small town of Daisetta in south-east Texas, sneakers squeak across the volleyball court as the Lady Cats run warm-up drills. Football coaches, players and cheerleaders prep for the night’s game. A local church serves lunch for the students. But there are no classes, and in the parking lot, just a handful of teachers’ cars.

Hull-Daisetta is one of a growing number of US schools – at least 1,600 in 24 states, according to a 2021 study, up from just 257 in 1999 – that have moved to a four-day schedule, giving students and teachers either Fridays or Mondays off. Students on a four-day schedule generally have longer days to make up for the time missed on their day off.

While the shorter week is upending traditional ideas about K-12 education, it is generally driven by concerns about money rather than claims it will improve student performance – and its long-term impacts on learning are still unclear. Some states that have allowed the schedule, including Minnesota, New Mexico and Oklahoma, have since moved to limit it, while others have seen a rapid expansion.

US schools have experimented with a four-day week as far back as the 1930s. When gas prices soared in the 1970s, administrators sought to save on bussing and energy costs. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, another wave of schools adopted the practice to address shrinking budgets.

More recently, the upheaval of the pandemic – with its shifts to online and hybrid learning and added stress on teachers, students and families – may have made some districts more open to dramatic change. The four-day week is still primarily limited to small, rural schools in US states west of the Mississippi, where travel distances are greater and hiring qualified educators is a challenge.

“We were struggling with getting teachers,” said Tim Bartram, superintendent of the Hull-Daisetta independent school district, a small, rural district that moved to a four-day week this year. “We don’t really have the financial capabilities and the pay scale to compete with the larger districts.” With several neighboring districts already on a four-day week or planning to make the switch, he also feared losing students whose families preferred that schedule.

Bartram said the change had been made in consultation with the community, including surveys of students, parents and teachers, and that feedback had been positive so far. Students have told him they “love it”. Teachers “seem to get more done” during the longer periods, with fewer transitions that cut into teaching time, like taking roll and moving between rooms. Attendance is up. Staffing has been easier too: Bartram said only two open positions in the district had gone unfilled this year, an improvement over the past.

Still, he was nervous going into the school year: “You have to wonder, is this the right direction or not? Is this what’s best for our community? I think any good administrator, good leader would definitely have reservations about making a move like this.”

Longer school days, longer weekends

To many teachers, a four-day week is a perk that makes the longer hours worth it. “You’re spending a ton of time at school anyway,” said April Lanotte, a former science teacher and mom of three who worked at a four-day school in the eastern plains of Colorado. “Extending it by 90 minutes was not really a big deal in order to get a whole other day off.” She found the longer class periods especially helpful for labs, since they allowed time to debrief and students didn’t have to “zoom through an experiment”.

Having a free day for errands and medical appointments is especially convenient in remote areas. “We were 18 miles from the nearest store, so you have to plan your trips into town accordingly,” Lanotte said. “I had to take my kids out of school less often, because we just scheduled all of that kind of stuff on the day off.”

But the four-day school week became more challenging when she started a new job and was no longer on the same schedule as her kids. Her in-laws helped with childcare, but “there were times when [my kids] came to work with me too, because that’s what we had to do”.

Long days, long weekends: the four-day week takes off in US schools (1)

Addie Yeager, a high school sophom*ore in Florence, Colorado, was nervous when her small-town school district switched to the four-day week when she was in elementary school. “I didn’t really want it because I wanted to see my friends,” she said. “My parents weren’t sure what I would do on Friday. But now it all works out just fine.”

When Yeager was younger, her mom took Fridays off when she could; other weeks, she went to her grandparents’ house. Now, her parents like the four-day week. Her mom started working as a substitute teacher at her school, so they’re on the same schedule. Her father, an engineer, sometimes takes Fridays off so the family can spend time together.

Her school days are long. From Monday through Thursday, she wakes up at 6am to get ready. Classes start at 7.10am and run until 3.25, followed by volleyball practice. She heads home around 6pm. “School is stressful and it just takes a lot out of me,” Yeager said. “I always look forward to Friday because it’s just a day for rest.” On those coveted days off, she sleeps in before doing homework, going to volleyball practice, or working as a cashier at a local apple farm.

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For Kim Fischer, a Denver-area high school English teacher and mom of four who previously taught at a four-day school in rural Colorado, the hardest thing about it was the long days. “You get done at 4.00 and then during the winter it’s dark at 4.30,” she said. At the time, her then kindergartener would come home exhausted. Today her kids, now three, six, eight and 11, go to school five days a week and are less tired. She has also returned to teaching a five-day week and says she feels she has more flexibility in the classroom and isn’t pressured “to get more done in less time”.

Districts that adopt the four-day week do it in order to save money and improve attendance rates and teacher recruitment and retention, according to a 2021 study by the Rand Corporation, which included data from Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri and South Dakota. However, the researchers found savings are modest – typically no more than 3% of the overall budget, though some administrators said even a small amount can make a difference. The study found no impact on absence rates and that the four-day week was a benefit but not a deciding factor for teachers considering jobs.

Less than 3% of parents who participated in Rand’s interviews and focus groups said childcare for the fifth day was a financial concern for their family, though the researchers noted this could be due to selection bias. In tight-knit rural communities, parents draw on relatives, friends and neighbors, older teens watch younger kids, and some churches and community organizations put together “pop-up” childcare on the day off.

‘This is not an easy way out’

One thing is sure: the four-day week is popular in communities that have tried it. Dr Jon S Turner, a professor at Missouri State University’s College of Education, said 143 school boards in his state had voted to go to a four-day week and only one had switched back.

Turner studies how the four-day week is implemented across Missouri, where 27% of non-charter public schools have adopted it, serving about 8% of the student population.

“The No 1 thing that I have to explain to people is that this is not a way for teachers to get an easy way out,” Turner said. “They’ll think this decision was made flippantly just to make the teachers’ union happy.” In Missouri, educators at four-day schools teach the same number of hours as at five-day schools and many four-day districts have doubled their professional development time, meaning teachers are actually on campus more.

The academic impact of the four-day week remains unclear, in part because it is still so new. “We’ve had huge growth here in the last four years of the number of districts on the four-day week, but we’ve had a pandemic in the middle,” Turner said. To assess learning impacts, researchers can’t “just take a snapshot of one year” or even two.

Nationally, Turner said, some researchers have found a short-term academic benefit, which could be because teachers have more time to collaborate, attend professional development workshops and prepare lessons. Other studies have found learning loss after the three-day weekend, though Turner said this was still unclear. The Rand study found that student achievement in four-day districts “did not grow as fast” after moving to the new schedule as it did in similar five-day districts. A multi-state analysis published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform in August estimated “significant negative effects” on academics, which were worse for girls and students in non-rural schools, although the researchers said a four-day week “may still have substantial negative consequences for students’ achievement and growth in rural districts over time”.

Turner advised against painting the four-day school week with a broad brush, since states have different educational requirements and each district implements the schedule differently. He’s particularly interested in how schools use the fifth day to support learning, which can include focused intervention for students who are struggling, internships and career shadowing, community service, cultural exploration activities and dual enrollment in college courses. “There are opportunities here that may not be there in a five-day week and it is a way to think outside the box,” he said.

One such example is AUL Denver, an alternative public charter school for students ages 14-21, where a four-day week is part of the school’s trauma-informed approach. Some of the students are parents, have recently been released from juvenile incarceration or are experiencing homelessness. All are working towards a high school diploma.

“A lot of our students are the breadwinners for their family,” said Carlee Taga, a science and health teacher at AUL Denver. Having an extra day in the week gives them the flexibility to work more and save money that would otherwise go to childcare for their kids.

The four-day week “respects students for where they are at and meets them exactly where they are”, she said. “Students have told me that they wouldn’t be in school if it were not for the flexibility and support that they received at AUL.”

Long days, long weekends: the four-day week takes off in US schools (2024)


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