Jobs’ Link With Academic Harm Disputed

By Robert Rothman — April 26, 1989 3 min read

Despite fears among educators and lawmakers that after-school jobs may harm students’ academic achievement, high-school juniors who worked a moderate amount performed about the same on a national assessment as those who did not work at all, a new study has found.

But the study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress--the first to examine the relationship between employment and achievement across a range of academic subjects--also found that those who worked more than 20 hours a week tended to exhibit the lowest proficiency in reading, mathematics, science, history, and literature.

These lower scores, however, may reflect student characteristics more than the effects of after-school jobs, naep researchers said. Students who work very long hours, the report shows, are more likely to be enrolled in vocational programs, less likely to take harder academic coursework, and more likely to go straight into the labor force after graduation, rather than to four-year colleges.

The findings “indicate that there is no cause for alarm about the effect of student work on academic achievement,” the report says.

“As a general policy guidance, you don’t need across-the-board policies to discourage youths from working,” said the report’s author, Paul E. Barton, former president of the National Institute for Work and Learning.

But, he cautioned, the results “don’t tell you what’s best for any one student.”

Naep is a Congressionally mandated project that tests student proficiency in reading, writing, math, and other subjects. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service under a grant from the U.S. Education Department.

The new report comes as the issue of after-school work moves up the legislative agenda in several states. In recent weeks, for example, the Tennessee Senate has passed a bill prohibiting high-school students4from working after 10 P.M. on school nights, and the Minnesota House has passed a measure barring them from working past 11 P.M.

The measures were aimed, sponsors said, at raising student achievement by removing what they considered to be a major deterrent to success. Anecdotal reports from teachers, the sponsors said, indicated that students who worked failed to complete homework assignments and missed school or fell asleep in class because they had worked late.

The bills’ critics have countered that the curfews may encourage those who want to work to drop out of school.

According to the naep report, more than half--54 percent--of the high-school juniors tested in 1986 reported that they held jobs. Of these, 38 percent said they worked moderate amounts, from 1 to 20 hours per week, and another 16 percent worked more than 20 hours per week.

The proportion of students working has begun to climb in the past few years, the report notes, after dipping sharply during the recession of the early 1980’s. (See Education Week, May 20, 1987.)

Males worked more than females, the study found, and whites were more likely to work a moderate number of hours than blacks or Hispanics.

In analyzing the relationships between such employment patterns8and academic performance, the study found that those who work more than 20 hours a week tend to exhibit the lowest proficiency in all subject areas tested.

In math, reading, and literature, it found, those who work a moderate amount display average proficiencies that are nearly identical to those of students who do not work. In science, students working moderate amounts scored slightly higher than those who did not work.

In addition, the study found little relationship between work and absenteeism, except when students worked long hours. Students working between 11 and 15 hours a week, it found, missed no more school than their nonworking classmates, but those who worked 25 hours a week or more tended to be absent more often than those who worked fewer hours or not at all.

The study also found that students who work long hours tend to do less homework and watch less television than others. By contrast, it states, “students working a moderate number of hours appear to trim other activities while maintaining their proficiency in the classroom.”

Copies of the report, “Earning and Learning: The Academic Achievement of High-School Juniors With Jobs,” are available for $3 each from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 1989 edition of Education Week as Jobs’ Link With Academic Harm Disputed