Four-Day School Weeks: Innovative or Harmful? Legislative Study to Investigate

Hundreds of thousands of US students are now attending school four days a week. The four-day school week, in recent years, has exploded to more than 1,600 schools across 24 different states, according to a 2021 study. And the four-day trend shows no signs of slowing down. West Texas, for example, is expected to experience a significant increase in four-day school weeks as more and more rural communities begin experimenting with the model. And the four-day model is by no means limited to schools; many large corporations are currently investigating the effectiveness of four-day schedules too.

Right now, more than 70 companies in Britain are undergoing a six-month trial to test the viability of four-day workweeks. Nearly halfway through the study, most companies have experienced zero loss in productivity and have indicated they are “likely” or “extremely likely” to continue the four-day model beyond the conclusion of the trial period.

But with innovation comes risk, and four-day weeks are no exception. So, we ask the question—at least a variation of it—of our upcoming legislative study: is the four-day school calendar a worthwhile innovation or a harmful one?

Upcoming Legislative Study

 The Oklahoma Legislature will consider this topic in its upcoming legislative study on October 12, 2022. State Representatives Danny Sterling, Ronny Johns, Eddy Dempsey, Randy Randleman, and David Hardin worked closely with Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) on the study. We have invited speakers from across the nation and the state to discuss the most current research on four-day school weeks, investigate different regulatory models of school calendars, and hear personnel testimony from local school board members. To better understand the topic and context of the upcoming study, it is helpful to understand the historical background that led to our current situation.

Historical Background to the Study

In 2019, the state legislature acted to regulate the expansion of four-day school weeks across rural Oklahoma by passing SB 441. The bill required school districts with four-day calendars to obtain a waiver from the Oklahoma State Board of Education (SBE). The SBE established minimum standards for a school district to obtain a waiver; the standards proved controversial.

Many Oklahomans from rural communities argued the standards set by the SBE were unattainable and eliminated the option for a four-day school week. Under SB 441, the state legislature had to approve or reject the SBE standards, presumably during the 2020 session. Many advocated for the legislature to reject the SBE standards.

The state legislature, however, never voted on the standards. In March 2020, approximately one month after the 2020 legislative session began, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The legislative session—along with everything else—essentially halted. The SBE standards, failing to receive a vote during the 2020 session, were approved by Governor Kevin Stitt on June 25, 2020, and subsequently published in the Oklahoma Register on September 1, 2020.

Despite the SBE standards taking effect in September 2020, the standards received little attention due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And to avoid exacerbating school disruptions further, the SBE voted on March 25, 2020, and again on January 28, 2021, to grant a one-year universal waiver for school calendar requirements.

Thus, despite the enactment of SB 441 on September 1, 2019, and the enactment of the SBE standards on September 1, 2020, neither one had an effect until the 2022-23 school year.

Where We Are Now

On May 26, 2022, seven Oklahoma school districts applied for calendar waivers to continue their four-day school calendars for the 2022-23 school year. The SBE was advised that each applying school district met or exceeded the established standards except for LeFlore Public Schools due to a single school site, which failed because of a “D grade” in student growth. Despite six school districts meeting or exceeding the standards, the SBE denied all seven waivers.

POE’s research team is currently unaware of any Oklahoma school district that has been granted a calendar waiver for the 2022-23 school year. The SBE’s full conversation and vote on the waiver requests can be viewed here. The relevant portion of the video begins at 2:04.

POE’s Motivation Behind the Legislative Study

POE’s motivation behind the legislative study is two-part: first, we believe the most current research on the four-day school weeks can answer our initial question; and second, we believe the state legislature is obligated to reconsider the issue.

Part I.

We initially asked if four-day school weeks were a worthwhile innovation or a harmful one. POE believes the evidence is clear: if a four-day school calendar is implemented appropriately, then it is not a deterrent to academic success, and it frequently improves the morale of both students and teachers, leading to fewer incidents of bullying and fighting. To be clear, while we believe the four-day school calendar is a worthwhile innovation, we are not arguing that four-day school weeks should be universal.

As an organization, POE values academic excellence and innovative approaches to education. We believe Oklahoma communities should be encouraged to be creative and to make decisions that are best for their students, families, and community members. We understand the four-day school model through this lens.

A local school district, in collaboration with its community, should have the authority to implement a four-day school calendar if it can do so without diminishing students’ academic success and morale. The most current research demonstrates that this is possible and that four-day school weeks frequently provide several additional benefits to students and families, especially in rural areas.

In a recent POE member survey, respondents overwhelmingly supported the authority of local school districts to choose a four-day school calendar.  

To reiterate, we are not advocating that four-day school calendars are the best choice for all schools. POE believes four-day school calendars are primarily a matter of local control, and these schools should be reasonably regulated for academic accountability, like all public schools. The debate is not four-day vs. five-day school weeks. The debate is whether local community members should have the authority to innovate and make decisions for their own communities within a system of fair and reasonable accountability measures.

Part II.

In 2019, when the Oklahoma Legislature passed SB 441 to regulate four-day school weeks, it did so with one major caveat. The bill mandated the SBE create a set of rules for four-day school districts seeking calendar waivers. The caveat was the SBE rules would be subject to approval or rejection by the state legislature. The state legislature then, not the SBE, would have the final say on the rules.

During the final debate of SB 441 in the House, this caveat was cited numerous times as a sure failsafe against any bad rules. If the SBE rules, for whatever reason, proved unfair, controversial, or just unhelpful, the state legislature could —and should—reject them. To drive the point home, the presenter of the bill—filling in for the House author—asserted:

“If the rules are not correct, we’re not going to accept them. There’s no way, with as many rural members as we have in the House of Representatives, that we’re going to approve a set of rules that is going to screw over a vast majority of four-day school weeks in rural Oklahoma.”

The problem is, of course, the set of rules produced by the SBE did prove controversial, and the failsafe promised by legislators and codified in SB 441 was rendered useless. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature never voted on the SBE rules, and instead, the governor enacted the rules via executive declaration.

The point is, regardless of one’s opinion on four-day school weeks, the state legislature has an obligation to reconsider the topic. Promises were made to both members of the legislature and constituents: the legislature would have the final say on the regulatory process of four-day school weeks, not the SBE. 

We believe the state legislature should fulfill its obligation and reconsider the topic of four-day school weeks.

Closing Remarks 

Our goal for the upcoming legislative study is to provide valuable information to Oklahomans and members of the state legislature. When the legislature debated four-day school weeks in 2019, research data on the topic was minimal; today, the situation is different. Research data on four-day school weeks is more accessible, and the four-day model is widely used in rural areas across the US. We hope the legislative study will reignite the conversation about four-day school weeks and forge a pathway that respects local control and provides reasonable and fair oversight.

[The final debate of SB 441 in the House occurred at 3:10 pm on May 22, 2019. The full debate can be accessed here by entering in the relevant date. Carmen Forman of the Oklahoman also covered the debate: click to read Forman’s article: “Bill to Curb 4-Day School Weeks Sent to Oklahoma Governor“]

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