Work vs. Homework

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U.S. students work longer hours than teenagers in most countries. But is it hurting their grades?

At 17, Stacy Kessler has built quite a long resume: movie theater usher, video store clerk, salesperson in a candy store. Like many teenagers, she has held a string of after-school jobs since she was 14, and enjoys the chance to gain business savvy while earning extra money.

"Nothing gets you more prepared for the real world than job experience," says Ms. Kessler, a high school senior who, until recently, spent 20 to 30 hours a week at her candy store job in a shopping mall in this Philadelphia suburb.

But experts on the subject aren't so sure. A growing body of research has questioned the value of after-school work for teenagers since the late 1970s. And many studies suggest that, rather than build character, part-time jobs might pose health and safety risks for teenagers or detract from their school lives.

The subject is getting another look in light of recent findings from international studies showing that after-school work is a peculiarly American coming-of-age ritual.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveyed students in their final year of schooling, found that American high school seniors on average spend a little more than three hours a day working at a paid job--more than their counterparts in any of the other 20 nations studied. Only Canadian students come close to working as many hours. They work an average of just over two hours a day at their after-school jobs.


International Comparisons

Some commentators suggest that such intense work schedules might explain the poor showing of U.S. students on the international tests. In both math and science, America's 12th graders--even the best of them--scored well below the international average. ("U.S. Seniors Near Bottom in World Test," March 4, 1998.)

A panel convened by the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National Research Council and the National Institute of Medicine is also re-examining the subject. That group is scheduled to issue recommendations on teenagers and work this summer.

But, while experts and researchers have raised questions about after-school work for two decades now, the answers they've offered have been less clear. Whether or not work is bad for students, it seems, depends on which students you're talking about, how many hours they work, and what sort of work it is.

For example, more-recent studies show that if researchers control for differences in students' academic backgrounds, a little bit of work never hurt anyone's grade point average. One ongoing study of 1,000 students in the St. Paul, Minn., area even suggests that students who work moderate hours--fewer than 20 hours a week--get better grades than students who don't work at all or students who work more hours.

But the experts all seem to agree that too much work is a bad idea.

"I think now we've probably reached a consensus that working more than 20 hours a week during the school year is probably not a good thing," says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. He conducted a three-year study from 1987 to 1990 of 20,000 students and their parents at nine high schools in northern California and in Wisconsin.

He says 20 hours seems to mark the point at which work is increasingly linked to a drop-off in the amount of time students spend on homework and an increase in their feelings of detachment from school.


Not Enough Sleep

Wendy Piscitelli, the head of the foreign-language department at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Horsham, Pa., agrees. Most students in the Philadelphia-area school do a fair job of juggling the demands of homework and their jobs, she says. But she still finds herself asking the occasional student who falls asleep in class to cut back on the hours spent behind the counter at McDonald's.

The problem now, researchers say, is that too many students are working too many hours.

"Once they get up into 20 or 25 hours, they find they really don't have the time and they really don't prioritize," Ms. Piscitelli says. "They can't keep up the extracurricular activities, and they don't get enough sleep."

The problem now, researchers say, is that too many students are working too many hours. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that as many as 4 million teenagers work during the school year. At schools such as Hatboro-Horsham, that figure translates to as many as 80 percent of students in some 9th grade classes, says Connie Malatesta, the school's vice principal.

Nationwide, Mr. Steinberg estimates, about one half of employed seniors, one-third of working juniors, and one-fifth of sophomores work beyond the 20-hour threshold.

In recent years, Mr. Steinberg has led the charge against excessive after-school work. He is skeptical of newer findings that suggest the link between hours of work and falling grades is tenuous. The problem, he says, is that researchers use grade point averages as a measure of achievement.

"Kids who work a lot manage their academic schedules to protect their GPAs," he says. They might, for example, cheat on a homework assignment or take easier courses, according to Mr. Steinberg.

"If you find that having a job 20 or 30 hours a week doesn't hurt students' GPAs, is that good news?" he adds. "It's not any reason for celebration if U.S. schools are so undemanding that kids can go to school and hold a 30-hour-a-week job, and not do more poorly as a result."


Legislative Action

In their three-year study, Mr. Steinberg and his colleagues at Temple, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stanford University tried to measure whether students were actively engaged in school. Did they cut corners to accommodate their jobs? Did their commitment to their education diminish once they started working?

He says the answer to both questions was yes.

Alex Felmeister, an 18-year-old senior who started working two months ago at The Gap at the Suburban Square Mall here, concurs. "I don't have a bad attitude," he says. "But I definitely feel that sometimes when I'm sitting around at school I could get more benefit out of working."

Mr. Steinberg's survey results, published in the mid-1990s, spurred several states to restrict the number of hours teenagers can work. California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Washington moved to tighten their child labor laws during that time, according to Darlene Adkins, the vice president of the National Consumers League, part of a coalition that tracks child labor issues.

But, except for Massachusetts, which is considering similar restrictions, much of that state-level activity has died down, Ms. Adkins says.

Federal laws on child labor have remained basically unchanged in recent years. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds may work unlimited hours, but 14- and 15-year-olds are barred from working more than three hours a day on a school day or 18 hours a week during the school year.

Working hours for younger teenagers are also restricted to between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during the school year.


High Injury Rate

Many of the more recent concerns over the wisdom of after-school work have centered on health and safety, rather than academics. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, working teenagers are injured on the job at higher rates than their adult counterparts, despite federal laws that bar youths from jobs that clearly pose hazards, such as roofing, logging, or driving a truck.

"Each year, about 70 teens are killed on the job, and another 210,000 typically are injured on the job," says Bernard E. Anderson, the Labor Department's assistant secretary for employment-standards administration. "To me, that's a pretty serious problem."

The issue is also central to the work of the National Research Council panel, several members of that group say.

To teenagers, learning to show up on time, to work with unpleasant customers, and to juggle homework and employment are valuable skills.

Study after study has also found that teenagers who work longer hours are more likely to drink alcohol or use illicit drugs than peers who work fewer hours. Jerald G. Bachman, who surveyed 70,000 high school seniors between 1985 and 1989 for the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, found, for example, that 12th grade boys working more than 30 hours a week were twice as likely to use cocaine as counterparts who worked five or fewer hours a week.

But, as was the case with academic achievement, the link between long hours of after-school work and substance abuse presents researchers with a chicken-or-the-egg kind of problem. Are students who take drugs and drink illegally the kind of students who are more likely to work long hours? Or does working too many hours instill dangerous habits? The evidence is unclear, experts say.

Mr. Steinberg points out, however, that employed teenagers are less supervised by their parents than nonworking students. Also, he says, "working students are exposed to older persons who are more likely to be advanced in their own drug and alcohol use."

And, he adds, working teenagers have more disposable income to spend.


'Premature Affluence'

That income--which typically amounts to about $200 a month for 12th graders--can lead to "premature affluence," says the University of Michigan's Mr. Bachman. Rather than use their money to pay for college or to help support their families, he found, working teenagers now typically spend their earnings on cars and insurance, clothes, and entertainment.

No doubt about it, says Kelly Gregory, who works at the Ultimate Bake Shoppe here in the Suburban Square Mall. "My parents basically said, 'We're not paying for that stuff anymore,'" the 16-year-old says. "When I go out with friends, that's my responsibility."

But Jeylan T. Mortimer, the University of Minnesota sociologist who is tracking students in the St. Paul area, says the criticisms of working teenagers may be overdrawn. "There is some evidence that young people who are employed more than other young people tend to, in some ways, grow up faster," she says. "But they also learn a lot about working and come out advantaged in many ways."

In her study, for example, students who worked a limited number of hours while in high school eventually went on to obtain more months of postsecondary study than other students.

Other studies have suggested that, compared with other students who might not go on to college, working students tend to have better jobs five or 10 years out of high school, says Michael Frone, a senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addiction in Buffalo, N.Y.


Better Jobs?

One key to making after-school jobs pay off in the long run, these researchers say, may be the quality of those jobs. Were young employees, in other words, given opportunities to advance, to learn something new, or to discuss problems with caring adult supervisors? Were their work schedules flexible enough to avoid conflicts with school responsibilities?

Ms. Mortimer has found, for example, that jobs fitting that description fostered in boys a greater sense of mastery over their lives than they had before they were employed.

Ms. Kessler, for example, is making the best of her work experiences. In addition to her paid after-school work, the Radnor High School senior has a 15-hour-a-week internship with a photographer, which she obtained through her school.

She has since parlayed that internship into a full-time summer job, and she plans to become a professional photographer after college.

But no one disputes that most of the jobs held by students are more mind-numbing than career-minded. Creating richer, more educational kinds of work opportunities for teenagers is the challenge facing the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, a federal program created in 1994, and similar efforts at the state level.

But even counter work at McDonald's may not deserve the criticism some scholars have heaped on it, says Mr. Frone of the Research Institute on Addiction.

"Part of what happens when we evaluate low-level or mundane jobs is that what we're doing is evaluating them from the standpoint of an adult," he says. "They may not seem so trivial to an adolescent. They may be important and not so mundane--at least for a while."

When asked, in fact, teenagers often rate their job experiences fairly high. To them, learning to show up on time, to work with unpleasant customers, and to juggle homework and employment are valuable skills.

"They don't teach you much about communication skills or dealing with people in school," Ms. Kessler says. "You can only really do that through experience, and that should be a required part of anyone's curriculum."

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 25, 28-29

Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Work vs. Homework
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