In Missouri, 1 in 4 school districts now have a 4-day week due to teacher shortage
A professor who studies rural schools in Missouri says the teacher shortage is now a crisis, and condensed schedules reflect that.
This school year, 1 in 4 districts in Missouri will be in class only four days a week. The trend has grown quickly over the past decade.
Jon Turner is an associate professor in the College of Education at Missouri State University. He researches rural school districts and the four-day school week.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Kate Grumke spoke with Turner about the many factors that have caused the rise in the four-day week.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Kate Grumke: What types of school districts are making this switch?
Jon Turner: You know, originally, back when this became an option in the state of Missouri 13 years ago, the schools that were adopting the four-day school week were typically very small, very rural school districts. But now here, especially in the last few years, you're seeing larger and larger school districts go to the four-day school week. So, for example, the largest school district on the four-day week is the Warren County School District in Warrenton, which has over 3,000 students.
Grumke: And why are school districts deciding to do this?
Turner: When I talk to people on the street, they often think it's all about the money, and it's not that simple. It is about money to the extent that many of the smaller rural school districts cannot compete with suburban schools as far as teacher salaries.
So in a tightening job market with teachers, it's really hard for a rural school district to compete with a suburban school district on a salary scale or benefit scale, or even a resource scale that's available in their school district.
This teacher shortage thing, it was bad before the pandemic and it's to a crisis now. Jon Turner, Missouri State University
I know it's easy for someone in suburban St. Louis to listen to us and say, “these rural schools are going to the four-day week,” but they don't realize how difficult it is to be a school administrator in a rural area, that you cannot compete with suburban school districts on the salary scale and you're trying to find teachers.
And so, I don't think the four-day school week is a vision of where schools wanted to go, it's what they've been forced to do by the circumstances that they have. And so policymakers in the state of Missouri are going to have to figure out ways to attract more people into the teaching career, because this is a crisis. And again, the four-day school week is a symptom of these challenges that these schools are facing.
Grumke: Has research shown that this is actually helping school districts with teacher retention?
Turner: I've been on the road all around the state of Missouri investigating this. And so I hear people tell me all the time that, yes, it definitely keeps teachers there longer, but it's really difficult to measure as far as quantitative numbers. But there is no doubt that the four-day school week is extremely popular with teachers, and there's no doubt that many teachers are staying longer in these four-day school week districts, rather than always looking for additional money and compensation.
Grumke: I think a lot of people find this trend kind of alarming at first glance. How do you feel about it?
Turner: I don't take sides on it, but because I've been out in so many districts on the ground and heard (from) people, not only school teachers, but also administrators and parents and people within the district.
The two groups that I say are the ones that, if you adopt the four-day week you have to pay the closest attention to, are those families that have students with unique special needs. So it may be a student that has a behavioral issue that makes it difficult to find them child care. Or you may have a student that has a unique medical condition where the school nurse is extremely valuable to do things like monitor for diabetes or other medications. You just can't put them in general child care, or just leave them with grandma, for that matter.
While it seems to be overwhelmingly popular and schools, once they go to the four-day week, do not go back. I always say pay special attention to those families that have unique challenges, like kids with unique behavioral issues and kids with unique medical issues and, of course, families where they only have early childhood-age children.
Grumke: Have we seen an impact from this on student learning?
Turner: Student learning is a tricky thing to measure in the state of Missouri because the number of four-day school week (districts) has been growing so fast. And another reason is that the MAP test – which is the state standardized test that is administered in all the public schools – has gone through several revisions over the last few years. And the MAP test wasn't even given two years ago because of the COVID pandemic. So it's been really difficult to measure to see the academic impact.
But I will just say this, Kate, is that in the state of Missouri, 141 school districts adopted the four-day school week, and over that time, only one ever went back. And so those local school boards are watching those test performance numbers and things like that. And I think the vote to continue to do it in all the school districts except for one does give you some measure.
And another thing that I would drop out is, you can look at this on a nationwide standard. While in Missouri, we're not doing so well on having the same test year after year, so it's difficult to measure growth. In some states, for example, the state of Colorado, a majority of the school districts in the state of Colorado were on the four-day week. And it's pretty clear that if there is an impact on academic learning on a four-day week, it's minimal.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.