School & District Management

Working Overtime

August 01, 1998 6 min read

At 17, Stacy Kessler has built quite a long résumé: movie-theater usher, video-store clerk, salesperson in a candy store. Like many of her friends in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, she has held a string of after-school jobs in her teen years, and she’s enjoyed getting some exposure to business while earning money. “Nothing gets you more prepared for the real world than job experience,” says the high school senior.

But experts aren’t so sure. Since the 1970s, a growing body of research has questioned the value of after-school work for teenagers and even suggested that it does more harm than good. According to some of these studies, part-time jobs may distract students from schoolwork, pose health and safety risks, and increase the chances that teenagers will abuse drugs and alcohol.

Now the issue is getting a fresh 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 more than three hours a day working at paid jobs--roughly an hour more than any of their counterparts in the 20 other nations studied. Such intense work schedules may explain the poor showing of U.S. students on the TIMSS, according to some commentators. In both math and science, America’s 12th graders--even the best of them--scored well below the international average.

Though experts and researchers have raised questions about after-school work for two decades now, the answers they’ve offered have not always been clear. Federal statisticians estimate that 4 million students work during the school year. Whether work is bad for these kids, it seems, depends on which students you’re talking about, how many hours they work, and what sort of work it is.

For example, recent studies show that if researchers control for differences in students’ academic backgrounds, a little bit of work doesn’t hurt their grade- point averages. One ongoing study of 1,000 students in the St. Paul, Minnesota, area even suggests that students who work moderate hours--fewer than 20 a week--get better grades than students who don’t work at all or students who work more hours.

But the experts seem to agree that too much work is a bad idea. In recent years, Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has led the charge against excessive after-school work. “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,” he says. Nationwide, Steinberg estimates, about one-half of employed seniors, one-third of working juniors, and one-fifth of sophomores work beyond the 20-hour threshold.

Experts seem to agree that too much work is a bad idea.

From 1987 to 1990, Steinberg conducted a study of 20,000 students and their parents at nine high schools in Wisconsin and Northern California. After about 20 hours, Steinberg says, students spend less time on homework and feel increasingly detached from school.

Wendy Piscitelli, head of the foreign language department at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Horsham, Pennsylvania, agrees. She says most students in the Philadelphia-area school do a fair job of juggling the demands of homework and jobs. But she still finds herself asking the occasional student who falls asleep in class to cut back the hours spent behind the counter at McDonald’s. “Once they get up into 20 or 25 hours, they find they really don’t have the time, and they really don’t prioritize,” Piscitelli says. “They can’t keep up the extracurricular activities, and they don’t get enough sleep.”

Steinberg 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. “If you find that having a job 20 or 30 hours a week doesn’t hurt students’ GPAs, is that good news? 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.”

Much of the recent hand-wringing over after-school work has focused on teenagers’ health and safety rather than on their academic performance. According to federal figures, working teenagers are injured on the job at higher rates than adults, despite federal laws that bar youths from clearly hazardous jobs, 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 Anderson of the U.S. Labor Department. “To me, that’s a pretty serious problem.”

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 Bachman, who surveyed 70,000 high school seniors between 1985 and 1989 for the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, found that 12th grade boys working more than 30 hours a week were twice as likely to use cocaine as those who worked five or fewer hours a week.

But researchers have to wrestle with a chicken-or-the-egg question when studying the link between substance abuse and long hours on the job after school. Are students who take drugs and drink 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. Steinberg points out, however, that parents supervise employed teenagers less than nonworking ones. Working students are also more likely to be exposed to adults using drugs and alcohol.

Jeylan Mortimer, the University of Minnesota sociologist who is tracking students in the St. Paul area, says the downside of teens working may be exaggerated. “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, students who worked a limited number of hours while in high school went on to obtain more months of postsecondary study than other students. Other research has suggested that working students tend to have better jobs five or 10 years out of high school than other students who might not go on to college, says Michael Frone, a senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addiction in Buffalo, New York.

The quality of the teen’s after-school job may determine whether it pays off in the long run to work, according to these researchers. Were young employees given opportunities to advance, to learn, or to interact with caring adult supervisors? Were their work schedules flexible enough to avoid conflicts with school responsibilities?

Stacy Kessler, for one, can boast some high-quality work experiences on her résumé. In addition to her paid after-school work, she had a 15-hour-a-week internship last spring with a photographer that she parlayed into a full-time summer job. After college, she plans to become a professional photographer.

Of course, most jobs held by students are less career-minded than mind-numbing. But even counter work at McDonald’s may not deserve the criticism some scholars have heaped on it, says Frone. “Part of what happens when we evaluate low-level or mundane jobs is we evaluate them from the standpoint of an adult,” he points out. “They may not seem so trivial to an adolescent. They may be important and not so mundane--at least for a while.”

--Debra Viadero

The “Research” section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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