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MN2020 Journal: The Four-Day School Week is Failure Triumphant

February 26, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota's slowly accelerating slide to mediocrity picked up speed on Tuesday night as the North Branch school board held its final of three public hearings on switching to a four-day school week. This decision may be a small blip in the daily media cycle, but it's a great blow against kids, families and Minnesota's future.
The four-day school week is exactly what it sounds like; four instructional days replacing five. That's four longer days, covering the material that used to be taught in five days. Doesn't matter if the kids are in first grade or twelfth, they're going to get everything minimally required in four longer days.

Earnest four-day school week apologists note that lengthening every class period by ten minutes makes up the discarded fifth day's instructional time. See, they say? It's the same amount of teaching just in four days instead of five.

So, why do it?

In North Branch, the shift saves the district $150,000 per year.  They're facing a $1.3 million budget deficit. Saving $150,000 will help but the district still faces difficult, unpopular and deleterious choices. North Branch, like nearly every Minnesota school district, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Every year the rock gets bigger and the hard place grows harder. Kids and families are stuck in the middle.

I'm hesitant to call the four-day school week "popular," but cash-strapped school districts are increasingly considering what was, even a couple of years ago, unthinkable. Otherwise intelligent, talented and skillful school administrators are suddenly rationalizing an educational policy shift undermining the pillars of their professional educator's identity. The four-day week probably won't hurt the kids.

Probably.

Academic considerations, responsible for many pedagogical changes, have absolutely nothing to do with the sudden interest in a four-day school week. At best, school superintendents carefully note that educational data suggests that kids perform about the same.  This argument also applies to monkeys flying out of my butt. I've never gathered data regarding that phenomenon and the fact that monkeys have never flown out of my butt doesn't mean they couldn't but I should discount the impossibility because it's never been studied.

In other words, as everyone in K-12 education knows, comparative student performance data are absent because nobody wants to risk kids' education just for the sake of determining if a four-day school is worse than a five-day school week. Hiding behind the no-data-suggest-a-negative-performance-shift argument is disingenuous and professionally irresponsible.

The four-day school week, now that it's arrived in the Twin Cities, is finally revealed for what it really is: the conservative assault on public education. Rural school district population sparsity isn't a complicating factor. The North Branch school board is making a financial decision with the slim hope that it might not irreparably compromise students' future.

Conservative public policy, for the past seven years, has been deliberately shifting costs from the state to cities, counties and school districts. State leaders are forcing school districts to choose between regressive property tax increases or cutting programs and services just to make up the difference. Minnesota schools are, in truth, not choosing; they're doing both.

With the four-day school week, conservative public policy is now forcing an additional daycare cost on North Branch families. That's on top of increasing property taxes for city and county services. Rather than efficiently share these costs together while achieving greater growth and productivity, conservative policy is forcing us to bear them alone. Projecting this trend into the future causes me to despair and, usually, when despairing, I turn to T.S. Eliot.

I first encountered Eliot's modernist poems at Walnut Grove High School in the late 1970s. I'm not going to pretend that, at 16, I had the slightest clue what they meant. Eliot certainly wasn't a part of our English curriculum but my teachers encouraged me and Eliot, like Carl Sandberg and John Keats, at least shared library shelf space with Hot Rod magazine and the World Book encyclopedia.

Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper," concluding his 1925 poem, The Hollow Men. It's a grim work, deeply informed by World War I's horrors but is also a masterpiece of English language poetry. However bad something seems, Eliot's work always suggests that somewhere, somehow, things are worse for others.

Consequently, even the fact that, in despair, I can reach to my Walnut Grove education for context and perspective suggests hope. Minnesota's future requires the best possible education for every child. We'll never deliver Minnesota's promise on four-day school weeks. Instead, let's invest in our future by investing in Minnesota's schools. A sub-par education is unwelcome in my Minnesota.
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