LA JARA — Down here, where kids ride the bus for an hour through miles of potato and alfalfa fields to get to school, teachers use the term “null curriculum.”
It means any part of a class that’s considered fluff. And it’s not allowed.
Since the North Conejos School District switched to a four-day week last year, teachers cut out the chill afternoons when kids would watch movies, the free time that sometimes filled the space between math and art class. It is bell-to-bell learning.
“We put a little more shoulder into the wheel,” said Superintendent Curt Wilson as he drove a pickup truck from the high school to one of the district’s two elementary schools on a hot August day. Wilson grew up in this small town in the San Luis Valley, and as the high school principal, knocked on a senior boy’s door every morning for four weeks to make sure the teen got out of bed and made it to graduation.
“We have very little wasted time in this district,” Wilson said.
In Brighton, north of Denver, where students switched to four-day weeks last fall, teachers say their lessons have become “more intentional.” And in Leadville, which will make the change next year, Superintendent Wendy Wyman calls the four-day week a “healthier, more balanced approach” to school and life.
Colorado now leads the nation in the number of districts that have moved to four-day school weeks — 111 out of 178 districts in Colorado. Nationwide, about 600 districts have gone to four-day school. The vast majority are rural — and many of them poor — but also include Pueblo and Brighton, which with 19,000 students and 26 schools is the largest district in the country to hold classes four days instead of five.
The trend has ramped up in recent years, with 27 Colorado districts switching all or some of their schools to four-day weeks in the last four years. The number has doubled in Colorado since 2005. The reasons are most often financial — budget constraints that have pushed districts to look for savings in transportation or building costs like air conditioning and heat. Several districts said they dropped the fifth day because it helps them recruit teachers to schools that can’t afford to compete on salary.
Switch to four-day requires a one-page application
The most comprehensive research on four-day school weeks tells us this: adults love it, according to parent satisfaction surveys. What researchers don’t know is how it affects children’s academic achievement over the long term, and as experts across the country try to get a handle on that question, they are raising alarm about how quickly the phenomenon is taking hold.
At least 25 states now have at least one district on four-day weeks, but the bulk of the districts that have dropped a day are in four states: Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana and Oregon.
For Colorado, the rise of the four-day school week is tied to the state’s poor rank in education funding and teacher salaries. A new report says Colorado has the worst pay gap for teachers in the nation, at 40 percent less than the average salary in the state. It’s also connected to Colorado’s local-control status, meaning school boards can mostly make their own decisions. To switch to four-day weeks, school boards simply must file a one-page spreadsheet showing they still will provide the required number of hours of instruction.
The Colorado education commissioner has denied no one since the state began accepting applications in the 1980s.
But districts need to meet standards for hours of required instruction. To do so, most have added minutes to the school day, though Leadville is instead shrinking summer vacation and adding about a month to the school calendar.
Among education experts, the four-day week is seen as a phenomenon that’s taken off without much debate and ahead of any conclusive research. In some states, the state education department does not even track which school districts have moved to four-day weeks, leaving researchers to attempt to count themselves. Colorado began keeping track in 2000.
“I take this as a little bit of a wakeup call,” said Georgia Heyward, a research analyst for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, based at the University of Washington. “We should think harder about how it is happening and why is it happening.”
Higher juvenile crime, fewer working moms, conflicting test data
The research on the four-day school week is limited and, in some cases, inconclusive, but these are the highlights:
— A 2011 report by the Colorado Department of Education found no significant difference in reading or math scores among four-day and five-day schools. At the time, there were 67 school districts on a four-day calendar. A 2015 study of Colorado schools, published in the journal Education and Finance Policy, found four-day weeks have a positive impact on student achievement, noting slightly higher scores in math and reading.
— A 2019 report from Oregon State University, however, found that four-day weeks have “detrimental effects” on the achievement of Oregon students. The study was different from the Colorado research because it looked not at schools’ average test scores, but the scores of individual students. It found that both boys and girls saw math and reading scores drop on standardized tests, but that boys’ scores dropped more. It also found reading scores dropped more for students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch compared with students who were not eligible. More research is required, but among the possibilities is that students from impoverished homes fell further behind in reading because of a lack of books or help with reading at home.
— A 2016 Cal Poly State University study of 47 rural counties in Colorado found that juvenile crime, most commonly property crime and theft, increased after schools switched to a four-day week. The study examined crime data from 1993-2009.
— A 2019 University of Illinois at Chicago study that looked at four states, including Colorado, found that four-day school weeks caused an 11% decline in employment among married mothers of children age 5 to 13. Single mothers, however, were no less likely to work and in fact more likely to work year-round. Employment of married fathers was not affected.
A Colorado Sun analysis of state education data found that school districts that have switched to four-day weeks typically have a higher number of impoverished students, based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. That’s not surprising, considering the bulk of the districts on four-day weeks are in Colorado’s rural counties, places where the cost of living is lower and, often, so is spending per student.
Among all four-day districts, 51% of students qualify for free lunch. And for five-day districts, the average was 43%.
The Sun’s analysis also found that four-day districts had slightly lower scores on average on statewide standardized tests. Yet education experts noted the correlation is likely related to poverty, not necessarily that students are attending school only four days. Poverty is the biggest single factor in student achievement, in Colorado and across the nation.
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In other words, some of the poorest districts in Colorado are the ones choosing to go four days instead of five. What worries education experts is whether kids who in some ways are already at a disadvantage will be further so because of fewer days at school. It’s a question that comes amid a national debate about whether American children should go to school more days — not less — than the typical 180.
“I don’t see that it’s harmful, but that’s probably too low a bar when we are thinking about rural education,” Heyward said. “One of my real concerns is that, overall, it may look like there isn’t much of a change,” yet certain students — perhaps those less likely to get help with schoolwork or reading time at home — will fall behind.
The largest district on four-day in the nation
While a handful of rural Colorado schools dropped a fifth day back in the 1980s, and an increasingly steady stream of districts has followed, it was the suburban Denver district in Brighton that made national news.
The district, called 27J, has the lowest local funding per pupil in the metro area and pays teachers a starting salary of $40,400, about $10,000 below neighboring school districts.
So when the community failed for the sixth time to pass a mill levy increase — one that would have, among other needs, boosted teacher pay — the superintendent began exploring a four-day school week. The district announced it was a possibility soon after the November 2017 election, then kicked off a series of community meetings and surveys.
Parents were at first skeptical. Some worried about the expense of daycare. Teachers wondered if they would face a paycut. (They didn’t, but they were required to work four longer days, with the payoff of three-day weekends. The district’s first job fair after the change attracted 500 people, more than twice as many as typical.)
Now, parent feedback reveals overwhelming support. Teachers love the schedule, and there’s an energy among them to teach better than before, or as third-grade teacher Barbara Haggerty puts it, “We became more intentional.”
Here’s what that looks like in her classroom at Pennock Elementary: the old curriculum suggested teaching the addition table for two days and the subtraction table for another two days. Haggerty knew her kids could learn it in half the time, so she designated one day for each.
Worried the 8- and 9-year-olds would grow restless with the extended school day, Haggerty saves science for the end. This year, her third graders are making root beer floats to study the properties of matter.
Last Thursday, the second week of the school year, Haggerty pushed play on Ed Sheeran’s “What Do I Know” and the kids sang along. She calls it “traveling music,” an interlude while they quickly clean up their math flashcards and line up for art, filing out of their Hawaiian-themed classroom in an orderly queue.
As a parent, Haggerty finds the four-day school week has changed her family for the better. At first, her mind was spinning with the big plans of a supermom — museum day and aquarium day and hiking every Monday! In reality, she and her boys, ages 7 and 9, do those things sometimes, but they also sleep in and go to piano lessons and to the dentist. Their days off from work and school include a bit of curriculum too, often the weekly science-experiment kit that comes in the mail.
About 350 of the 27J’s 19,000 kids come to the district’s Monday daycare program, which costs $30 per day. Some working parents have formed co-ops to cover the days, including a group of five moms who took every fifth Monday off last year to take their pack of kids on field trips.
The change — one that district leaders say has attracted more experienced teachers and motivated local businesses to offer Monday music lessons, science and art clubs — is considered permanent, officials said. It’s unclear whether it has saved money, but teacher recruitment was the larger point.
The district had hoped to improve its standing to an accredited level school — the second-highest level in Colorado — when statewide scores were released this year by the state education department, but 27J fell short. It remains on an improvement plan.
“If scores were to drop immensely, obviously that is something we would have to look at, but we are not expecting that to happen,” said Tracy Rudnick, the district’s public information officer. “It’s going to take a couple of years to really create the concrete data.”
Substitute teacher costs are down 50%
The North Conejos district, in far south-central Colorado, is seeing most of its savings in transportation and substitute teachers. Now the buses run four days each week instead of five, and teacher attendance has improved dramatically — so much so that expenses for hiring substitute teachers are down 50%.
All but one of the 14 districts in the Valley had dropped Fridays before North Conejos. And all of them were scheduling sports on Fridays, which meant huge numbers of students and staff were missing Fridays to travel sometimes three or four hours away for football, basketball and track.
Consider the middle school track team, which includes 80 of the school’s 275 students. Plus three coaches who are also teachers. And two teachers who are parents of athletes. So many people missed school on Fridays that by noon, kids were texting their parents to ask if they could bag the rest of the day.
The town revolves around high school sports — more than half of the district’s staff grew up in the county and many are alumni. “You could rob the local bank during an activity here and no one would respond,” Wilson said, mostly kidding. “It’s extensive travel. And playoffs? Everybody goes to playoffs.”
Test scores in North Conejos have been rising, and the district wants to see them continue upward, even with four-day weeks. “All of the studies I looked at prior to the switch were inconclusive at best,” Wilson said. “That was scary for our board. But it hasn’t affected it. We attribute it to more quality instruction time and less disruption.”
The district holds the state’s top rating of “accredited with distinction,” though scores on standardized tests show an achievement gap between white students and the district’s Latino children. About 55% of the district’s students are minorities and 68% qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Middle school science teacher Andrew Shelton now teaches “bell to bell.” Students often find a question on the white board when they walk through the door and understand it’s “bell work,” meaning do it immediately, as the bell is ringing.
“We keep our education time sacred,” Shelton said, as his students answered written questions about ecosystems.
The district has color-coded its curriculum — red is must-do, blue is next-level priority, and black is OK to skip.
Another San Luis Valley district, the Center Consolidated School District, was also among the last in the region to switch to four-day weeks. That lone status resulted in Center’s relatively abrupt adoption of the four-day week two years ago simply so it could compete for scarce teachers — who, all things being equal, liked the idea of three-day weekends.
For counselor Katrina Ruggles, who had for years been fighting to fend off kids’ substance abuse and teen pregnancy, moving to a four-day week raised concerns about how an extra day off from school would affect progress. “I was scared of what might happen, knowing kids would be free on Friday,” she said.
With the help of a grant from the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the district launched a program to help occupy middle- and high-school age kids. It’s filled some of the void, but Ruggles said gains in curbing risky youth behavior have eroded since adopting the four-day week. The influx of opioids and legal marijuana, and shifting social norms, have likely had an effect, she said.
“But having that Friday available has probably impacted that some. I think we’ve had a little bit of a slide,” she said.
Future study explores student health, diet, sleep
A team of Oregon State researchers, including those who studied the academic effects of four-day weeks, is attempting to gather data on all of the nation’s four-day schools. So far, they’ve counted about 600 districts and 1,500 schools.
The goal is to learn more about student achievement, but also nutrition and diet, physical activity and sleep, said assistant professor of economics Paul N. Thompson, who noted a “massive growth” of four-day districts in the last two decades. They intend to learn more about how students are spending the fifth day and how it impacts their health.
Also, the team wants to know how state policies regarding four-day weeks affect student outcomes. In Oregon, students at four-day schools are losing about three and a half hours of instruction per week. Some states — including California — require districts to return to a five-day schedule if their scores drop.
Minnesota ordered seven districts to return to a five-day schedule after failing to make academic progress and the state is no longer accepting applications for four-day schedules, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education. New Mexico last year used a state funding bill to quash district plans for four-day school.
Other states — including Oklahoma — require an extensive application process, including a written proposal to explain why a four-day week is better academically for their students.
Across the board, schools are talking about money, Thompson said. “Voters aren’t raising property taxes. Do we fire teachers? Do we cut extracurricular programs? Start pay-to-play athletics? Or do we go to a four-day week?” Thompson said.
Schools need metrics so they can weigh the impact on students’ academics and health before they decide on four-day weeks, he said. “We really don’t know much about it.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Kevin Simpson contributed to this report.