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OUR OPINION: Four-day school week deserves still another look

Our Opinion

Claiming cause-and-effect in social science is easy. But proving it — ay, there’s the rub, as any good statistics class will show.

It’s very hard to prove such claims, students learn. In fact, a benefit of taking such a class should be a lifelong reluctance to jump to conclusions, because so few of those notions prove out.

The four-day school week is a great example. It dashes preconceptions like textbooks being dropped on a piece of chalk.

The Minnesota Department of Education should keep this in mind as it looks at four-day weeks. Specifically, the department shouldn’t let its own preconceptions get in the way of evaluating the schedules on a range of indicators, not just one or two.

The first preconceived notion that the real world challenges is the idea that four-day weeks hurt academic achievement. Hmm: four days vs. five days … isn’t it obvious that a four-day week would hurt?

It may seem obvious, but real life confounds such assumptions. “Much of the literature on the practice concludes that a condensed schedule may have a positive effect (on student achievement), and in most cases has no negative impact,” declares “A review of the evidence on the four-day school week,” a 2009 study by the University of Southern Maine.

McRel International, an educational research outfit in Denver, agrees: “Most researchers have concluded that when properly supported and implemented, four-day weeks can have no negative, and possibly even modestly positive, academic results.”

But it’s not just opponents of four-day weeks who should keep their minds open. Supporters should as well — especially supporters who think the schedules save busloads of money.

“A 20 percent reduction in school days seldom nets more than 2.5 percent slashed from the overall budget, according to a national study by the Education Commission of the States,” the Denver Post reported in 2012.

Interestingly, the strongest benefit of a four-day week tends to be the least expected: Parents, teachers and students wind up loving the plan, despite most of them having opposed it at first.

“Almost every school feels the four-day school week fits its community like a glove and benefits everyone,” a 2011 study by the Montana Office of Public Instruction concludes.

“Most would hate to return to the five-day week.”

The Minnesota Department of Education should take this into account.

Minnesota’s education commissioner “has told seven of the 11 rural districts with four-day weeks to return to normal schedules,” Minnesota Public Radio reported.

The commissioner “said students weren’t making adequate academic progress because of the shorter weeks.”

But what yardsticks were used in that measure? For example, did test results lag those in five-day districts, or are the students in four-day districts keeping up?

And if they’re keeping up — in other words, if the four-day week is neither hurting nor helping academically — does the state really have to pull the plug?

In the Lake Superior School District on Minnesota’s North Shore, “the four-day week is widely embraced by the community,” MPR reported. In part, that’s because it means one less day in which students spend nearly two hours in a bus going to school and nearly two more hours riding home.

Maybe that’s enough. After all, there are benefits beyond the academic — and as long as students aren’t being hurt academically by a four-day week, state officials should consider that the schedules might be helping in other ways.