Last week, international news outlets were set abuzzing with talk of a radical idea coming out of Finland. According to the reports, newly elected Prime Minister Sanna Marin was considering enacting a 6 hour work day, combined with a 4 day work week for her country.
Now, it appears that Marin did not actually suggest this idea, nor, apparently is her government considering it. According to a clarifying report, Marin originally floated the idea while she was speaking as part of a round table event in Helsinki last August, in what was basically an “imagine what would happen if” session. Although declaring that the government had no immediate plans to enact the idea, she did indicate that she would welcome a debate on its merit.
The speed and ferocity with which this story spread certainly lends a bit of credence to the idea that we all need to be somewhat wary of what we read, regardless of source. However, the story got folks talking, and got yours truly wondering about the state of an idea I had floated in these pages a few years back; that of the four-day school week.
I originally stumbled across the idea of the four-day school week way back in 2014 while listening to a radio story about Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. Speaking at a business conference in Paraguay, Slim had suggested that instead of working 40 hours over five days, we should perhaps be looking at working 40 hours over four. That led me to a consideration of how schools could perhaps enact flexible scheduling that would allow for slightly longer, but slightly fewer, school days.
When I wrote my first piece on the subject, the number of areas that were actually implementing the idea was relatively small. The most prominent Canadian example was Boundary 51 a rural, resource based school district in the Kootenays of British Columbia. The district switched to a four-day week back in 2002, primarily as a cost saving measure. The move has proven so popular that they maintain the practice today, and use the shorter work week as part of their teacher recruitment strategy.
Since that time, the notion of the four-day week has crossed provincial boundaries and is now seeing wider implementation here in Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan. The Prairie South School division operates a yearly calendar which sees 26 of 38 weeks shortened. South of the border, the idea is seeing even wider acceptance. According to a recent report a full 560 school districts across 25 states are either experimenting with or have implemented the four-day school week, up from 120 in 2009.
Although gaining popularity, there is still a fairly large vacuum as far as research is concerned on whether the idea is educationally sound. What research does exist is admittedly somewhat conflicted. One report from MIT in 2015 found “…a positive relationship between the four-day school week…and students scoring…on math and reading achievement tests.” Another study out of Oregon found that the practice may have a detrimental impact on at-risk students, (although that study did allow that those impacts seemed to become less pronounced the longer the practice was in place). There have been a few other studies, but to date there has been little conclusively said about student achievement on either side of the argument.
The cost savings benefits of the practice are more clear, if, perhaps, somewhat underwhelming. US data indicates districts can save between 0.4 percent and 2.5 percent per year, with a maximum potential savings of about 5.5 percent. However, those calculations did not include, (nor could they accurately predict) savings that could be realized due to a reduction in sick time costs. Although there is again no conclusive research, this is one of the most promising areas, and one of the most commonly cited benefits, of the change. When the four day week is implemented, there are many anecdotal reports of staff attendance rates increasing, reducing the need for replacement workers. A more obvious benefit to the employer’s bottom line here is that schools require no substitutes on the days they are closed. That particular savings, however, may need to be offset by increasing the daily rate of pay for the other four days, if for no other reason than to keep people interested in the job.
There are many other potential benefits that are difficult to measure. Student attendance seems to improve under the system, as does overall school climate, with many districts reporting a reduction in discipline problems. Students spend one less day on a bus, which is a particular boon to rural students. Sports events can be scheduled for Fridays, as can various medical appointments, further reducing student lost time. Finally, the extra day off allows both teachers and students more time to complete the various tasks associated with school, thus reducing stress for both groups, potentially reducing health care costs.
There are, of course, challenges, particularly around child care for working families and for those living in poverty. There have also been concerns raised around the impact the change may have on students who rely on such things as school breakfast programs. Those challenges, however, have not proven insurmountable in other jurisdictions, and frankly, if, as a province, we are relying on our schools to feed our hungry children, we probably need to do some pretty serious soul searching.
Here in Nova Scotia, changing from a five day week to four days would not really be particularly onerous, at least as far as our schedule is concerned. Currently, sixteen of our approximately thirty nine weeks of school are already shortened for one reason or another, leaving twenty three weeks that are five days long. The switch to a full, four day week schedule would require each school day to be extended by about thirty five minutes.
As to convincing the public of the idea’s merits, well that might prove a somewhat more substantial task.
In truth, I was quite disappointed to see the Prime Minister of Finland had been mis-quoted in the media. I would have been very interested to have seen the results of a four day school week on that country’s already exemplary system.
However, it may be that we will not need to wait for Finland. Certainly, when it comes to Nova Scotia’s education system, we have seen some significant changes in recent years that were based on far more flimsy evidence. As jurisdictions nation-wide struggle to recruit teachers, it may be that moving to a four day week would set Nova Scotia apart in an educationally positive light.
And that particular headline would be a welcome sight indeed.
Originally published on-line at The Chronicle Herald.ca, January 14th, 2020.