Open Enrollment for Increasingly Closed Doors
With its recent vote to implement a four-day school week in 2023, the Independence School District joins 146 other Missouri districts serving 74,076 students that already operate under this system. The move means that over 26% of Missouri school districts will be on a four-day school-week schedule next fall. The decision in Independence will affect 13,765 students and could signify the expansion of the trend toward a shortened school week. Up to this point, districts taking this path have been primarily smaller and more rural (the largest: Warren County R-III, with 3,026 students).
Districts have implemented this new schedule to lure teachers to their schools during a supposed teacher shortage. However, Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy James Shuls has raised questions about how serious this shortage is (if it exists at all). But even if we were to grant that teacher shortages are a problem that districts need to address, the four-day school week will generate new problems, which could be amended by a complementary policy–open enrollment.
Forcing families to adapt to a four-day school week is a significant change that will be disruptive for many parents—particularly those with younger children—whose employers are more committed to the traditional five-day work week. For families of children using the free/reduced-price lunch program, there may be additional difficulties for finding care and proper nutrition on the extra day off. With that said, parents who work from home or otherwise have the flexibility to accommodate the shorter school week might find that the new policy is a good fit for them. Every family is unique—which is why the Missouri State School Board’s recent interest in the possibility of instituting open enrollment statewide holds so much promise.
Open enrollment would enable parents in Independence and the surrounding districts to decide for themselves which schedule works best for their families. If the four-day school week would create serious problems for a family in the Independence district, the chance to move their children to a nearby district that has classes five days a week could be a lifesaver. Conversely, there are probably families in the area surrounding Independence that would benefit from the four-day schedule if they were allowed to switch districts. With open enrollment, districts can offer options while decision-making power remains with the parents.
In any case, the welfare of the children should be the paramount concern of all involved, and the effect of a 4-day school week on learning remains a subject of controversy. Paul Thompson at Oregon State University recently published a study evaluating the impact of four-day school weeks. He noted the numerous benefits that accompany attending school in-person, including face-to-face interaction with both teachers and peers along with opportunities for structured group activities. On one hand, four-day school weeks reduce these benefits and increase weekend learning loss; some students may be more vulnerable to these effects than others. On the other hand, an additional day off provides extra downtime for students and teachers and increased opportunities for students to spend time outside school with their peers. Acknowledging both the positives and negatives, Thompson finds that if schools maintain the same number of hours of instruction they had in a five-day week, these negative effects (reduction in test scores) are mostly negated (but still exist). However, if instructional time is not maintained, the negative effects are strongly pronounced.
Just like individual families, individual students will handle a four-day school week in different ways; it will be a better fit for some than for others. The trick is matching each family and student with the right schedule, and that’s a job best left to parents. If the trend toward a shorter school week has staying power, we’ll learn more about its long-term effects in the years to come. In the meantime, open enrollment has the potential to maximize its benefits and minimize its shortcomings.