Short school year hurting Oklahoma students

Ray Carter | June 18, 2024

New research on shorter school years, including in Oklahoma, shows short school years have a significant, negative cumulative impact on student learning over time.

The research not only highlights how shorter school years in Oklahoma, particularly through the adoption of four-day school weeks, may produce significant gaps in academic achievement but also augments the debate regarding how many Oklahoma schools are effectively reducing the school year even more through use of prescheduled “virtual days” that involve little direct instruction or learning.

“Time in School: A Conceptual Framework, Synthesis of the Causal Research, and Empirical Exploration,” published in the May 30, 2024 edition of the American Educational Research Journal, found that “large differences in the length of the school day and year across public schools are an underappreciated dimension of educational inequality in the United States.”

An article on the website The 74 Million summed up the report’s findings: “Seemingly minute differences in the length of a school day or year, whether stemming from state laws or local rules governing school districts, eventually grow into colossal gaps in learning opportunities. Over the course of their K–12 careers, the authors estimate, children living in jurisdictions requiring the most time in school benefit from over two years more education than those living in areas that require the least.”

A second study, “A multi-state, student-level analysis of the effects of the four-day school week on student achievement and growth,” published in the June 2024 edition of Economics of Education Review, found that a four-day school week produced “significant negative effects of the schedule on spring reading achievement” and “fall-to-spring gains in math.”

Researchers also found “suggestive evidence that the negative effects of the schedule grow in magnitude over time.” The four-day week’s negative average effects on test scores were slightly greater than those associated with certain increases in class size or teacher turnover.

Across the nation, the minimum required number of school days ranges from 160 days in Colorado to 186 days in Kansas; while in the 37 states that require a minimum number of instructional hours per school year, the range is from 720 hours in Arizona to 1,260 in Texas.

“Oklahoma taxpayers are investing in our public schools at a historic rate and expect their dollars to be used wisely and intentionally.” —State Sen. Kristen Thompson (R-Edmond)

Nationally, the average K–12 school is in session for 179 days a year without about seven hours spent in school each day.

Oklahoma allows schools to provide just 165 days of instruction per year, so long as 1,080 hours of total learning occur over the course of the year. That’s roughly three work weeks less instruction than what occurs in many other states. 

In the 2023-204 school year, there were 55 Oklahoma schools districts that had at least one site operating on a four-day school week. 

And some districts are effectively providing even fewer days of instruction by including numerous “virtual” days in the school-year total.

Each year, Oklahoma public school districts must self-report school-calendar information to the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE). Numbers were finalized for the 2022-2023 school year in June 2023.

Out of more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma, more than 100 districts reported having at least one site where students had two work weeks (10 days) or more virtual days throughout the 2022-2023 school year with sites at more than 60 districts imposing distance learning for three or more work weeks. And there were 36 districts that reported having at least one site that went virtual for four work weeks that year, effectively shifting a full month of instruction online—if not more.

This year, lawmakers tried to rein in the use of pre-planned virtual days at brick-and-mortar public schools.

Under Senate Bill 1768, by state Sen. Kristen Thompson and state Sen. Lonnie Paxton, public schools would have been allowed to shift to virtual learning only in the event of inclement weather, staff shortages caused by illness, building maintenance issues, or if found necessary by school administrators.

When school district officials decide to use a virtual day instead of a traditional snow day, the bill would have required schools to provide a minimum of five and a half hours of instruction to K-8th students and six hours to high school students. Additionally, more than half of the online or digital instruction would have to be synchronous under the provisions of SB 1768, meaning there must be “real-time interaction between a teacher and students as the primary format of instruction.”

Supporters noted that many school “virtual days” now consist of students receiving handouts and having little true interaction with a teacher.

SB 1768 passed out of the Senate on a 31-16 vote and passed out of a House committee, but did not receive a floor vote in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

Thompson, R-Edmond, said the problems caused by virtual days effectively reducing learning time must be addressed.

“During the pandemic, we saw virtual learning led to significant social isolation, which impaired social development and emotional well-being. We are still reeling with the effects of that today, and we know the lack of face-to-face interaction with peers and teachers hinders students’ ability to develop essential communication and teamwork skills,” Thompson said. “Disparities in access to technology, reliable internet access, food, and a conducive learning environment can exacerbate educational inequalities, leaving many Oklahoma students behind. Additionally, prolonged screen time can result in physical health issues, such as eye strain and poor posture, and negatively impact mental health due to increased stress and anxiety.

“Aside from the health risks to our students, Oklahoma taxpayers are investing in our public schools at a historic rate and expect their dollars to be used wisely and intentionally,” Thompson continued. “For our traditional, in person, brick and mortar schools, use of virtual days should be for emergencies only.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Loading Next