The big payoff of the four-day school week: Unplanned innovation?

August 11, 2010 •

In this budget climate the four-day school week is hot. California’s trying it. Some districts in Georgia and Hawaii have gone to four-day weeks. And as districts in Minnesota act on the idea, Minnesota Public Radio held an online debate about the topic with two rural superintendents last week.

Some districts are going to the four day week as part of a staff furlough, and some to try and cut non-staff costs. The spike in talk about moving to four-day weeks as a way to cut costs is remarkably unimaginative. It’s illustrative of the fact that we as a country have a set idea for what ‘school’ looks like, and cannot seem to imagine that things could in fact work differently than they do now.

The question the four-day week mis-addresses is how to improve productivity. The vast majority of costs for schools are contained in staff and administrator compensation. While districts may decrease the number of school days by 20 percent, as in Minnesota, they are not decreasing compensation by 20 percent. Rural superintendents argue for the shorter week to save on transportation costs—a notably small minority of the budget.

So in effect they are decreasing offerings to families faster than they are decreasing cost—lowering productivity. If schooling is not productive enough, merely supplying less will not make the system any more productive. Similarly this move represents a significant cost increase to families, such as a 20 percent increase in childcare costs. This has the effect of a new tax on families without an improvement in productivity of the system, lowering value.

Instead of remaking schooling, four-day weeks are another attempt to squeeze the current model more. If money cannot be saved by removing any more learning options from the five day week, administrators seem to reason, then the next step is to squeeze more money out of it by reducing it to a four day week. Unless there is some innovation to get as good or better results, it is merely austerity. This is hopeless. It is not, clearly, a serious strategy.

So since the four-day week is not a serious strategy to address cost problems, perhaps this is a sign that we should be looking elsewhere for the future of schooling.

The onset of the four-day week may have an entirely different effect, and an unintended effect, releasing students from 20 percent of their obligatory time to instead pursue learning in other areas.

As the four-day week unfolded in Hawaii members and institutions of the community stepped in the fill the vacuum. Parents sought activities, and students were flexible. New spaces opened up for young people to learn on Fridays. Museums and Rec Clubs offered Friday learning opportunities, some at little or no cost; others parent-run (parents rotated days off of work to manage supervision of student activities). Parents, wary of potential new costs for child care, welcomed the innovations.

New online learning options could be done during this time, from home, or a coffee shop, or a library, or a friend’s house. What different kinds of combinations can be found when inspired young people, parents seeking new options, and communities come together to pick up the slack? Imagine the potential to capture and accredit the value-added by these types of activities. What if post-secondary institutions began accepting the validation, by a reputable organization or company, for this type of out-of-school learning?

Image: Daily Telegraph