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Why a four-day school week means higher math scores

The five-day-a-week school schedule has tradition on its side, but a new study suggests fewer days at school might mean more learning. 

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John Wayland Elementary School kindergartners (from left) Davin Tatro, Reese Ostend, and ShLace Eakle, sing the National Anthem on Monday, Sept. 14. A new study suggests that young students may benefit from a shorter school week.

Nikki Fox/AP

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Test question: When is five minus one greater than five? 

Answer: When one is a negative number.

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New studies on education – and school budget shortfalls – are challenging school districts to rethink the standard five-day-a-week schedule.

Budget cuts in Colorado prompted 14 schools to switch to four, longer school days. The district saved on busing costs and other daily expenses, while inadvertently creating an ideal laboratory to study the effects of school schedules on student performance.

Two years later, elementary school students had improved their test scores in math, and reading scores were unchanged, according to a study in the latest issue of Education Finance and Policy.  

"The longer days might give teachers an opportunity to use different kinds of instructional processes," said Mary Beth Walker of Georgia State University, a co-author on the study. "We also speculated that a four-day school week lowered absenteeism, so students who had dentist's appointments or events might be able to put those off until Friday and not miss school. We thought there might be less teacher absenteeism."

"My own personal hypothesis is teachers liked it so much – they were so enthusiastic about the four-day week – they did a better job," Dr. Walker added. "There's some evidence in other labor studies that four-day work weeks enhance productivity."

So, shorter school weeks for all? Maybe not; Walker warns that the study focused on small, rural schools and found improvement in math scores only for fifth-graders.

She added that she was most surprised the change did not hurt students. 

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"Our results ... were completely opposite to what we anticipated," Walker said. "We thought that especially for the younger, elementary school kids, longer days on a shorter school week would hurt their academic performance because their attention spans are shorter."

Four-day weeks are becoming the norm in rural, western school districts. Over one-third of the school districts in Colorado have adopted a four-day schedule, and school districts in Oregon, Missouri, Florida, and Georgia are considering the option.

Financially strapped schools districts in 12 states had experimented with a four-day week in 2004, when The Christian Science Monitor reported on the new schooling model. Some parents and administrators were upset by the change, and Oregon school officials said the economic gain had not made up for the academic loss.

"My instinct is that it's a trend in the wrong direction," Ted Sizer, a former dean of the Harvard School of Education, said at the time. "It doesn't make an awful lot of sense."

The shift toward a shorter school week comes at the same time as a push to decrease elementary homework.

A vocal group of homework abolitionists say homework has no benefits for younger children, because it takes away from self-guided learning and family time, The Christian Science Monitor reported in March. Author and anti-homework activist Alfie Kohn called daily assigned reading time "an excellent strategy for making kids hate reading."

The National Education Association has adopted the "10 Minute Rule," which says homework should start at 10 minutes a night for first graders, and increase by 10 minutes per grade.

Maybe a compromise is for students in four-day school weeks to spend Fridays at the library. Denise Pope, a Stanford professor and a co-author of "Overloaded and Unprepared," told Today that free reading is "the only type of homework that's proven to be beneficial to elementary school students."