Plan To Require All Students Work Resisted in N.Y.

By Karen Diegmueller — April 07, 1993 6 min read
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A proposal by Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol of New York State to mandate work experience as a prerequisite for graduation has renewed the debate over the value of jobs for students.

Mr. Sobol last month asked the state board of regents to approve a package of initiatives designed to integrate education and work as a way of helping the many students who graduate without the high-level skills needed in the workforce.

Dismayed by the image of hundreds of thousands of teenagers across the state being forced to sling hamburgers in fast-food restaurants in order to finish high school, however, the regents allowed the proposal to go forward for now only as a limited experiment.

“The educational system is not an employment agency. Its [job] is to produce a well-rounded citizen,’' said Willard Genrich, the chancellor emeritus of the board.

All but lost in the debate over the work mandate were the other components of Mr. Sobol’s proposal. The plan also called for identifying and integrating workforce competencies into the curriculum and state-mandated learning outcomes, redesigning staff development and career guidance, developing an assessment tool to measure student progress, and formulating an alternative to the general-track diploma.

The goal was not merely to tack on another requirement for schools and students to meet, say backers, but to make work experience meaningful and relevant to the education process.

Working in fast-food restaurants “alone would not meet the requirement,’' said Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the state education department. “We would want to know what they learned by being employed.’'

Even so, the regents withheld their overall approval, while authorizing the commissioner to explore an integrated approach and set up pilot projects.

‘We Should Aim Higher’

Mr. Genrich said he opposed the measure because schools need no new mandates from the state. Moreover, he said, the state first needs to fund existing programs to teach the basic academic subjects.

The plan also could lead to a tracking system, Mr. Genrich warned.

“Can you imagine a high school with 3,000 or 4,000 students in the Harlem section of New York City being mandated to have a working certificate at the age of 16 or their sophomore year and have served an apprenticeship in some kind of meaningful job?’' he asked. “I can see where there would be a big demand for the minimum wage in fast-food services, but I don’t think that should be the aim of our educational system. I think we should aim higher, to lift them up.’'

Lack of Details

Some of the regents also indicated that they were uncomfortable with the lack of details in Mr. Sobol’s plan.

There was no indication in the proposal about the number of hours that would be required, whether the work would take place during school hours, or who would be responsible for finding the jobs.

Drafters of the plan say that is what they intended.

“The idea was not for us to sit here in Albany and try to design some models and then say go test out some models,’' said James A. Kadamus, the assistant commissioner for workplace preparation and continuing education. “We want that to come from the districts.’'

The department is proceeding with plans to select six pilot projects, which are to get under way by September. Each will receive about $125,000 from the state.

But the regents’ unwillingness to back the program all the way has frustrated some advocates.

“I think they’re all thinking about kids going to Princeton,’' said Thomas Y. Hobart Jr., the president of New York State United Teachers.

“We need to have a radical change in our schools, to make what you do in life contingent upon what you do in school,’' Mr. Hobart argued. “Mr. Sobol’s recommendations start us down that line.’'

For more than a decade, experts have been exploring the impact that outside jobs have on students.

Two recent studies were released by researchers at the University of Michigan, who looked at the costs and benefits of work for high school students, based on a random sample of more than 70,000 seniors.

Jerald G. Bachman and John E. Schulenberg found that students who worked long hours tended to perform poorly in school, use drugs, fight with their parents, eat poorly, and get insufficient exercise and sleep.

But the researchers at the university’s Institute for Social Research also noted that a student’s prior academic history plays a key role.

“While the number of hours teenagers spend on the job may make some contribution to poor school performance, it’s more likely that students with a history of poor school performance are willing to spend long hours at part-time jobs,’' the study suggests. “Therefore, previous educational difficulties, rather than long hours on the job, are likely to contribute to undesirable outcomes.’'

A second study found that jobs in which adolescents are able to use special skills or see a connection to their future career do not have the detrimental effects.

Ivan Charner, the director of the National Institute for Work and Learning, a nonprofit research and development group, said the New York plan is difficult to assess without more detail.

Before such a plan proceeds, he said, many questions must be answered. “What is the learning we are trying to instill? Is it the value of working? Is it high-tech skills? Is it employability skills or what? All are good. They just need to be specified.’'

“If you connected work to school and learning, that could only be positive,’' said Mr. Charner.

What Is a Meaningful Job?

Mr. Charner said he is less sanguine about the practical matter of finding and monitoring meaningful jobs for all the students. “I don’t know where they are going to find them. I don’t know what a meaningful job is either.’'

Other experts are dubious that mandating work for students will provide any benefits.

“What I would encourage people to think about is, what is the problem this is supposed to solve,’' said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University.
“What typically happens is one discovers that there aren’t enough meaningful work experiences for kids in the labor force and everyone’s fantasies about the wonderful apprenticeships that kids are going to have out there are compromised over time,’' Mr. Steinberg said.

“The vast majority of kids have an experience in [meaningless] jobs,’' he added. “We know from our research that that work turns kids off and takes time away from things they could be doing.’'

“Over the long run, the students with loftier ambitions are going to find a way around the work experience because it is not going to help them achieve what they want to achieve,’' he said.

Many Businesses Interested

Such considerations have not dampened the enthusiasm of some businesses and educators in New York, however. Dozens have called the state department to express interest.

One who called is John Chamberlain, the community-relations manager for West Valley Nuclear Services, an environmental-restoration and waste-management subsidiary of Westinghouse.

The firm, located in a rural community southeast of Buffalo, last year began a joint venture with the local high school. Three of the school’s 40 seniors worked there two hours each school day. They were not paid for their jobs, but received experience in engineering, business, and environmental science.

Mr. Chamberlain, a former teacher, said he knew it would take time and effort to insure that the students were performing meaningful work because the goals of business and education are not always the same.

Though there were pitfalls in the program, he said, there were also successes. One student began with no aspirations to further her education, but now is enrolled in college.

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 1993 edition of Education Week as Plan To Require All Students Work Resisted in N.Y.


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