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Oregon State University study examines academic impact of 4-day school week

Researchers compared standardized math test scores of more than 340,000 high school students.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Every now and again we hear about a push for schools to change from a five-day schedule to a four-day school week.

One researcher at Oregon State University compared five-day and four-day school weeks to look at the impact on students.

Paul Thompson, an associate professor of economics at Oregon State University, said before the pandemic, 137 schools in Oregon had opted for a shorter week. He said the study looked at the standardized math test scores of more than 340,000 high school students between 2010 and 2019 who had similar levels of achievement and attended similar schools.

“We find that students who have switched to the four-day school week see reduced achievement when they get to 11th grade. We attribute that to drops in instructional time,” said Thompson.

He said it's possible math at higher grade levels is just more difficult to catch up on at home.

Thompson said the majority of schools that switch to a four-day week tend to be in rural areas.

“It’s more of a lifestyle change for them, something that fits well with the makeup of their communities,” Thompson said.

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But he also drew a distinction between students at more urban schools that switched to a four-day week and students at other urban schools that stayed on the five-day schedule. He said those with fewer days in the classroom performed worse than their counterparts who were at school for five days.

“We see a lot of non-rural areas that are considering these [four-day weeks] for things like teacher retention, cost savings, and that is a different objective function.”

He said when those reasons are drivers for a four-day week, lengthening the four days to make up for all the lost time, may not happen.

By contrast, Thompson said rural schools planning to make the switch long term, particularly those that do well, tend to tack on extra hours in school over the course of four days so students don’t lose time with their teachers.

Thompson said one thing to consider is that the study was done before the pandemic, when a four-day week generally meant three-day weekends. He said now, due to COVID, there's infrastructure for more online learning where students could learn asynchronously and still have access to their teachers at home. 

That may be beneficial for students on a four-day in-person schedule, with their fifth day spent learning asynchronously. It may also ease teacher loads.

Ultimately, Thompson said he hopes his research helps schools better understand what to think about before moving to a four-day schedule.  

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