Can four-day school weeks help tackle teacher shortages?

Southwest

Students in a classroom in Socorro Consolidated Schools in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Socorro Consolidated Schools.

(NewsNation) — Education leaders in a small New Mexico city are among a number of school districts turning to a four-day school week as a way to recruit teachers amid a nationwide teacher shortage, hoping three-day weekends will make their district more attractive than others. But it’s unclear if the format will work everywhere.

For years, New Mexico’s Socorro Consolidated Schools struggled to attract teachers, according to Superintendent Ron Hendrix. The district serves a small area nestled between Albuquerque and Las Cruces.

“Anybody new coming out of college, if they’ve got the choice between Albuquerque or Las Cruces to teach in or Socorro, they’re going to pick one of the bigger cities because there’s just a lot more things for them to do,” Hendrix said.

Prior to the switch, Hendrix hired teachers from outside the country to fill vacancies, bringing in staff from as far away as India and the Philippines.

The district began using the new schedule during the 2021-2022 school year. After implementing the new schedule, Hendrix found that he was able to fill all but two vacancies, and did not have to look globally this time.

For the current school year, the district filled 18 of its 19 vacancies.

“The four-day (week) played a major role in that,” Hendrix said, noting that applicants who were offered jobs in multiple districts were drawn to Socorro by the work schedule.

Teachers are required to work four Fridays every year, with two reserved for professional development and two reserved for parent-teacher conferences.

“A lot of people were attracted to that because they know they get a three-day weekend every weekend, pretty much,” Hendrix said.

Before recent teacher shortages, the four-day school week has proliferated in many districts across the United States for other reasons.

Districts had historically adopted the policy for financial reasons, said Emily Morton, an education researcher at the nonprofit Northwest Evaluation Association. She noted that the budgetary impact tends to be small.

School districts across the country have now turned to the model as a way to address teacher shortages as Socorro has.

Early research based on surveys of educators in districts that are using the shortened week has shown that they generally favor the new model.

But it’s not clear whether the policy is actually boosting teacher recruitment in most districts, said Paul Thompson, an economist at Oregon State University who has studied education issues.

“We don’t have a lot of good research yet, in terms of whether or not (it’s) been effective overall,” Thompson said. “Maybe schools are finding that it is effective for them, but maybe overall that’s not the case. We don’t have a good sense of that.”

Thompson noted that one challenge of shifting to four-day weeks is it can significantly cut the instructional time students receive, which can reduce student achievement.

A study he conducted on four-day weeks in some Oregon schools found that math and reading scores were negatively impacted by the switch to the shorter week.

Whether districts extend school days and by how much differs. Thompson emphasized that how much districts cut overall instructional time is key.

“The places where we’re seeing the big detrimental impact are the places where we’re seeing very large cuts — these four-hour reductions per week,” he said. “Places that are losing like an hour a week, that seems to be negligible in terms of how much is lost in terms of achievement.”

In Socorro’s case, the district extended school days by about half an hour every day to compensate. Hendrix emphasized that they are still meeting state-required hours for instruction.

Students in Consolidated Schools in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Socorro Consolidated Schools.

Another challenge is how to tackle the needs of working families who may be counting on the social support of a full five-day workweek. In Socorro, the district offers Friday programs that include tutoring and afterschool activities for kids and school meals, although the Fridays do not consist of normal instruction.

Morton noted that one reason four-day school weeks have taken off in rural communities, in particular, is because they tend to have more multigenerational families who can care for kids during the weekday school isn’t in session.

For Hendrix, it all comes back to his campus climate.

“I can tell you right now, our morale in our classroom from teachers has never been higher,” he said.

And there may also be unexpected benefits for students. Earlier this year, Morton published research looking at four-day school weeks in Oklahoma.

“I find that bullying and fighting incident rates decrease in four-day school week districts…(there’s) potentially something really happening with student morale, that kids are potentially happier,” she said.

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