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Four-day school weeks produce negligible savings, report says

You know those budget-healing four-day school weeks? According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), the savings they produce is negligible at best.

In recent years, some 120 districts in 17 states have gone to four-day weeks, a shift many projected would save up to 18 percent.

All of the states but one (Washington) belong to ECS, which serves as a policy information and assistance clearinghouse. According to the Denver-based organization, the move saved Minnesota’s North Branch Area Public Schools a princely 0.4 percent of its overall budget, or $123,000. Lake Superior Schools, meanwhile, saved an estimated $200,000-$250,000, or somewhere between 1 percent and 1.2 percent.

In most districts, instructional staff salaries and benefits account for some 65 percent of the budget, but ECS found [PDF] that the cost savings to teacher salaries and benefits was a paltry 0.03 percent. Because districts compensated for the lost day by increasing the length of the rest of the week, teachers were on the job just as many hours.

Projected savings didn’t even pan out in transportation expenditures, an area where it’s reasonable to assume that cutting out 20 percent of the school week would translate into savings of 20 percent. A few saved that much, but most realized about 10 percent — typically less than half a percent of the budget.

Schools in use on fifth day
“While several factors can account for potential and actual savings,” the group reported, “one stands out: Each district continued to make use of its schools on the fifth non-teaching day. Reported reasons for schools to be open on the fifth day include teacher training, student extracurricular activities (including sports) and additional learning programs for at-risk students. Opening the school on the fifth non-teaching day decreases savings from reduced heating/cooling of the school, transportation and maintenance.”

The two aforementioned Minnesota districts were among six the organization studied to try to determine what savings were reasonable to project. North Branch saved the least of districts surveyed; Bisbee Unified School District in Arizona saved the most at 2.5 percent.

So why, with such a small percentage of the budget at stake, do districts go ahead and shorten the school week?

Small percent, but savings nonetheless
“While cost savings might not be large, they are cost savings nonetheless,” ECS noted. “In the Duval [County, Florida] school district, moving to a four-day week produced only a 0.7% savings, yet that resulted in a budget reduction of $7 million. That $7 million could be used to retain up to 70 teaching positions. When faced with a choice of reducing the school week by one day or letting 70 teachers go, it is easy to see why some school administrators have chosen to go with the four-day week.”

Rep. Carlos Mariani
Rep. Carlos Mariani

The numbers are even grimmer in some Minnesota districts. In Blackduck, where more than half of the 642 students live in poverty, shortening the week saved an estimated $70,000.

In April, the education reform-minded Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill to outlaw four-day weeks in Minnesota. The measure acquired several other sponsors, but the Legislature adjourned without considering it.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/06/2011 - 10:19 am.

    On the one hand, savings are savings, and even the relatively paltry $70,000 saved by the Blackduck district is still more than pocket change for most of us.

    That said, I don’t see any *instructional* upside to a 4-day week. Regular 3-day weekends simply give our anti-intellectual culture another 24 hours with which to indoctrinate children that “fun” and the material realm supersede all other concerns and values.

    That school districts are forced to pinch pennies so severely that they shorten the week in order to make ends meet ought to be embarrassing to citizens of the state.

    My personal bias – unlikely to be put into practice – is that not only should the school week continue to be 5 days, the school day might be longer, and the school year itself ought to be restructured. Taking 10 to 12 weeks off in the summer might have made sense 150 years ago, when children routinely took up part of the workload of farming, which is what 98 percent of Americans did before the Civil War, but in a society where the vast majority of the population lives in urban and suburban environments, and less than 3 percent of the population is actively engaged in farming, dismissing formal education for that length of time takes nostalgia for our horse-drawn agricultural past into the realm of lunacy.

    While there’s much hue and cry about low test scores, achievement gaps, and students of every race and background unprepared for college-level work when they graduate, it’s curious, indeed, that we limit the amount of time students are formally engaged in education to (typically) 6 hours a day for 36 weeks. A good case can be made that both students and teachers need a break from the routine and intensity of high-level academic work, but there’s no reason why the break has to be 10 or 12 consecutive weeks. The countries that are beating our brains out on international tests do not take summers off, though they often have as much “non-school” time on the calendar as we do. The difference is that their school days are longer, more homework is expected and required, and the “breaks” between instructional sessions are usually no more than 2 weeks, with perhaps 3 weeks for a cultural holiday (e.g., Christmas / New Year’s in western Europe).

    In short, most countries that demonstrate more than lip service to public education provide more financial support, more “seat time” for instruction, and place more responsibility on the shoulders of students.

    If school districts are truly desperate to save money, they might consider eliminating interscholastic sports programs. In many districts, the cost of uniforms, equipment, facilities, coaches, officials, transportation, etc., consumes 10% of a district budget. Keep physical education / health classes – children need both exercise and information about how their bodies work – and perhaps even intramural programs when existing facilities allow it, but most kids don’t participate in formal, organized sports anyway, so eliminating contests with other schools as a taxpayer-supported activity ought to be a no-brainer if a district is truly strapped financially.

  2. Submitted by David DeCoux on 06/06/2011 - 11:14 am.

    Ray – You say that “The countries that are beating our brains out on international tests do not take summers off”

    Things are much more complicated than that, most of the top performing countries fit into one or two categories 1) High Homogonized 2) Smaller size.

    Countries like Finland, Japan and Korea which currenlty lead the top do not have the size or racial and social diversity that the US does, and these things are huge impacts on education.

    A good place to verify this is oecd.org.
    http://www.oecd.org/document/28/0,2340,en_2649_34487_34010524_1_1_1_1,00.html

    As for year-round schooling: I’m neither pro or con, but try to imagine the additional costs. Schools would have to be updated for running during the hot summer (air conditioning is not inexpensive), additional salaries, and the facility costs for maintenance and utilities would increase.

    I imagine that at a time when the state and nation are struggling to pay for education the thought of increasing costs by extending the school year would be met with little more than ridicule.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/06/2011 - 11:22 am.

    Mr. Schoch makes a lot of sense.

    I suspect that the schools like the DNR like to keep things like sports that generate revenue which is not the same as generating net revenue.

    I think savings are savings and even a little bit of savings can help a district.

    Can you take this story a little farther and find out what impact the 4 day school week had on standardized test scores in each district compared to the year before and the state as a whole? Did the districts where there was tutoring available on the 5th day bring up test scores of any group of students? I am not a fan of standardized tests but they are adequate for comparative if not absolute purposes.

  4. Submitted by Amy Wilde on 06/06/2011 - 12:02 pm.

    It appears that savings may be greater in districts with very long bus routes and those that manage to keep at least parts of their buildings closed over long weekends. I heard a report last year from the first MN district to go to a 4-day week, MACCRAY. That district experienced a couple of “surprise” advantages: absenteeism among both students & staff was significantly reduced. (Medical, dental, etc. appts were being made on the 5th day.) As a result, the district saved more than anticipated in substitute teacher costs. Because the school day was lengthened, student contact time actually increased, making for no overall loss (and in some cases a little gain) in academic achievement. The “day care” problem for working parents was, for the most part, resolved by existing day care providers & the willingness of some high school students to babysit elementary-age youth. Biggest problem was coordinating extra-curriculars with neighboring schools.
    In today’s world, maybe the best thing for kids would be a longer school day (with also more recess/gym time) and a slightly longer school year. Perhaps a longer year could be used with a 4-day week in districts where money prevents a longer year of 5 day-weeks. Just a thought.

  5. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 06/06/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    Ray, I agree. Eliminating the interscholastic sports programs would not only save money but remove the high status that sports enjoy now. And it probably would encourage more athletically average kids to engage in more sports. I know females have more options now and can usually find something they like. (The only thing I liked was swimming.)
    But back to the subject, do students work longer hours per day if they have 4-day weeks? How do they make up the required time? I don’t think most kids (and a lot of adults) have the ability to focus on learning for, say, 8 hours a day. It is exhausting.
    10-12 week vacations also have another effect: students lose a lot of their learning over that length of time.
    If 4-day weeks save so little, let’s scrap the idea and find savings elsewhere, most especially in interscholastic athletics which would be a real savings.

  6. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/06/2011 - 01:30 pm.

    In school districts that operate four days a week, what do parents with 5-day-a-week jobs do? The out-of-pocket costs and social cost of dislocations would seem to grossly outweigh the cost savings to the districts, … no?

  7. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/06/2011 - 02:42 pm.

    I can tell you that the cost of release-day care in the Twin Cities is about $36 a day per kid, plus additional fees for any field trip, special activity or meal. Spaces in well-staffed, structured programs fill up lightning fast and there is very little out there for kids older than about fifth grade. That means a four-day week would cost me and my two kids a minimum of $324 a month. If my admittedly feeble math skills hold, Blackduck parents are conceivably paying about three times what the district is saving.

  8. Submitted by scott gibson on 06/06/2011 - 03:38 pm.

    One reason that extra-curriculars are not often slashed in budgets: competition. I teach in a rural district that is moving to a 4-day week next year. If we were to slash extra-curricular offerings, parents would be more likely to open enroll their students to other districts, costing us even more dollars. It is a risky move. Every district is in competition for student bodies. If your programs don’t match up with your neighboring districts, your enrollment will suffer. I am not against longer school days, longer school years or eliminating sports (as long as everyone is required to do it and it is fully funded).

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/06/2011 - 03:51 pm.

    Interesting responses, all.

    My flip response to the day care issue is to ask whether the tail is wagging the dog. Are we funding schools to be expensive day care facilities, or is the object to educate the next generation? That is, however, a flip response. A more sober assessment is that day care is typically an expensive and nerve-wracking issue for far too many working parents, Beth included, and it’s not often that families with two working parents (or one, as is more and more the case) can manage work schedules that make paying for day care unnecessary.

    I’d say day care for working parents constitutes a serious social, occupational and, ultimately, educational problem that the society has so far been unwilling to address.

    True, the societies that usually beat our brains out on international tests are often more culturally and ethnically homogeneous but that doesn’t negate my point that they typically provide more financial support – through the government – require more “seat time” from students, and place more responsibility on those students. In this country, lousy results on a “high stakes” statewide test can get a school closed and numerous adults fired, with no consequences whatsoever to the students who actually took the test. I think of that as egregiously stupid policy.

    We probably don’t have the philosophical agreement and/or fortitude to go to Germany’s system, wherein lousy performance on a statewide test means a student CANNOT go to an academic high school, but must enroll in a trade school instead. In similar fashion, lousy performance on a statewide graduation examination means that the student in question CANNOT enroll in a public college or university, although, if his/her parents can afford it, there’s no reason why the student in question can’t enroll in a private college or university – if the school will admit them.

    That, my friends, is genuine student accountability. Here, we blame the teachers…

    Indeed, year-round schooling would probably be more expensive, and David (#2) is surely correct that a proposal to increase educational costs while the economy is struggling would likely be greeted with ridicule. That, of course, is the problem. Education is a long-term investment, and not especially applicable to the next quarterly earnings statement. Moreover, it’s essential to any sort of functioning republic. Skimping on education not only produces less-than-optimum employees, it makes it possible, even likely, that demagogues of varying political stripes will not only campaign, but actually be elected to public office.

    As for air-conditioning, I can only say that the majority of schools with which I’m familiar (none in Minnesota) display an interesting, some might say perverse, school district climate control policy, probably based on – what else? – saving money. That policy has central and administrative offices air conditioned, since they’re typically staffed through the summer. Classrooms, however, where the raison d’etre of the school takes place are often not air-conditioned at all, save by the opening of windows on a 95-degree day, or by bringing in a big fan. I once spent a very hot day in a classroom that featured three of those big fans. It was a lot like conducting a class on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a strike was being launched against the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Big propellers make big noise…

    Decades ago, I attended a genuine prep school in St. Louis for a few upper-elementary years, and our school day was 9 AM to 5 PM, with half an hour for lunch and 5 minutes between classes. I don’t remember it as being a joy-filled 8 hours every day, but I got used to it. So could my granddaughter.

  10. Submitted by Randall Ryder on 06/06/2011 - 08:32 pm.

    Educating children involves (1) academic engagement, (2) time on the learning task, (3) challenging students by creating high expectations, and (4) creating a structured, supportive learning environment. Time in class with a qualified teacher is relevant to the extent the other factors are in place. An unorganized teacher with low expectations of his/her students will have the same results whether it is a four or five day school week. Many people advocate a longer school day but if one examines the German and British schools they have much less contact with students (shorter school days) yet high levels of achievement compared to their U.S. counterparts. If schools really want to reduce costs and shorten days they need to consider new instructional delivery systems using available technology directed by master teachers

  11. Submitted by scott gibson on 06/06/2011 - 08:33 pm.

    Ray,
    I can concur that many districts, like mine, air condition only parts of their buildings. Oftentimes those are not classrooms. Also, your prep school experience may be laudatory, but is it a realistic model for the vast majority of young people who will be educated by public schools? Is there anything near the will of the public to have that kind of school as a norm? I doubt it. The agrarian school calendar persists despite many decades of folks saying it should be eliminated. Folks must still want it. My district is one that could reasonably follow an agrarian calendar. We are a farming area.

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