Arne Duncan: 4-day school weeks “unacceptable”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took aim Monday at the 39 South Dakota school districts – that’s one in every four in the state – that run on a four-day week.

Duncan was participating in his second #AskArne chat, answering questions from folks on Twitter. He complained about people who view education as an expense, not an investment, who force schools to cut early childhood education, arts, music and P.E. and go to four-day weeks.

John Merrow, PBS education reporter and chat moderator, followed up: “What do you think of a four-day week?”

Duncan’s response:

“I think it’s unacceptable. And I know these are really tough – you know – economic times but our children need more time, not less. And do we really think our children going to school four days a week are going to be able to compete on a level playing field with children in India and China and South Korea who are already going to school 30, 35, 40 more days a year?”

You can watch the chat here. The four-day question is 35 minutes in.

I don’t know about other states,  but four-day schools in South Dakota generally stay open on Fridays and invite students who need extra help to show up. And their school days Monday-Thursday are somewhat longer.

School leaders here, most notably Dean Christensen, the four-day pied piper and Deuel superintendent, say the short weeks have been good for student achievement. And most say saving money was not the primary factor in making the switch.

Contrary to these administrators’ claims, test scores suggest students in four-day schools don’t learn as much. For a 2010 story, I examined the Dakota STEP results at districts that made the switch. Here’s what I found:

Of the 16 South Dakota school districts now on four-day weeks, 12 switched between 2003 and 2007. In their final year with five-day school weeks, the schools were an average of 4.2 percentage points behind the statewide average in math and reading proficiency.

The deficit widened the following year as they transitioned to four-day weeks. The schools then averaged 4.7 percentage points behind the state in math proficiency and 6.3 in reading.

On Dakota STEP tests taken last spring, the same schools remained 5.8 points behind the state in both math and reading proficiency.

It’s not the most scientific approach to analyzing the impact of four-day weeks, but it’s the best I could do in a state that does not have a sophisticated data system.

Here’s a spreadsheet showing which school district are on four-day schedules.