Drastic cuts in state budgets are forcing many states to consider drastic measures in education, including closing schools, getting rid of significant numbers of teachers and administrators, and cutting out extracurricular activities. Another contentious idea being kicked around in many school districts is scaling back to a four-day school week, and adding an extra hour or so to the remaining days.
The head of a Minnesota district that's switching to four-day weeks next year says she's confident it will save money without affecting learning, and might even have some positive effects, such as fewer absences. Superintendent Deb Henton told CNN's Campbell Brown a four-day week has a "neutral" effect on academic achievement: "It's neither a positive gain, nor a negative gain." And she said it would prevent bigger problems, such as additional cost cuts and larger class sizes.
Fact Check: Can a four-day school-week save money without undermining learning?
– The four-day school-week was used as far back as the 1930s in South Dakota. It was adopted by districts in New Mexico when the 1970s energy crisis hit, and the number of districts across the country switching to four days has gradually increased with each economic crisis, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Education Commission of the States. Currently, out of 15,000 districts nationwide, the ECS estimates 120 districts in 17 states use a four-day week. They are typically small, rural districts, mainly west of the Mississippi River.
- North Branch, Minnesota, school district superintendent Deb Henton says her district has cut more than $10 million out of its budget since 2003-2004, and without the four-day week, "we would have to look at additional cuts and adding more students onto teachers who already experience a very high class size in their classroom on a daily basis. For example, some of my high school teachers see 215 students a day."
- "We have researched the four-day week for two years," Henton told CNN. She said the studies they looked at "said that the academic achievement under a four-day week is neutral. It's neither positive gain, nor a negative gain. So, what we have found is there's a great increase in staff and student attendance." She said the longer hours offset the reduced number of days, and overall instructional time over the course of the year won't change.
- ECS Chief of Staff Kathy Christie tells CNN that any studies suggesting a four-day week has no significant impact on academics are purely "anecdotal" and "there really is no strong research on how it affects student achievements."
- The clear benefits of a four-day week cited by the ECS and other education research and policy groups include: reduced cost for transportation, heating and cooling; fewer long commutes for students; longer instructional blocks for students; and increased time for academic support and extracurricular activities.
- Drawbacks listed by the ECS and others: Parents who work must find additional child care one day a week; younger students may struggle with longer school days; districts may not save as much as anticipated if school buildings stay open for the fifth day for nonacademic activities.
While a four-day school week can certainly help a cash-strapped school district's bottom line, research on how it affects student achievement is limited. Despite uncertainty about the academic impact, districts adopting four-day weeks as a last resort may still be benefiting students by heading off other problems such as larger class sizes or closing schools near their homes.
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