The Lure Of The Paycheck

Do part-time jobs make for part-time pupils?

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High school teacher Mary Bicouvaris walks into her Newport News, Va., classroom each morning and wonders where her students went. She doesn't see many teenagers getting ready to learn. Instead, as she looks around at the many sleepy faces, some scribbling down last-minute homework answers, she sees what she calls “little business people.”

She sees young girls dressed not in comfortable jeans and sneakers for the school day ahead, but in the dresses, heels, and jewelry they must wear for after-school jobs behind cosmetics counters and in clothing stores. She knows others have food-service uniforms tossed in their lockers for the burger grilling, table wiping, and trash hauling they'll be doing as soon as the last afternoon bell shrills. Many of them won't be giving her, or her lessons, another thought, she says ruefully, until the clock is moving past midnight, and they “try to squeeze an hour or two of education in before they fall asleep.”

Well over half of America's secondary school students are simultaneously pursuing report cards and paychecks. They work anywhere from a few to more than 20 hours a week, at businesses that range from pizza parlors to funeral parlors. Their willingness to work at or near the minimum wage, and their legendary hole-in-the-pocket handling of the money they earn, helps keep businesses happy and the economy healthy. But a growing number of educators are not so happy. They speak of part-time jobs in terms seemingly more applicable to such problems as drugs, divorce, and social disease: “It's a cancer that's eating up excellence, and it's ruining our children,” says Bicouvaris, who is using her notoriety as this year's national Teacher of the Year to call attention to the problem.

Jeff Solle, a history and economics teacher in New Hope, Minn., who is on a districtwide committee to study the problem, echoes her concerns: “Our school's motto is, ‘high expectations.' But we almost can't ask it of them anymore—they're too busy flipping burgers. Without a doubt, it is one of the major issues destroying secondary education today.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, it is far from clear that working after school is as devastating to student performance as teachers claim. Almost everyone concedes that school gets short shrift when teenagers work long hours, but research suggests work—in moderation—is not harmful for students. And some experts say work instills in teenagers a sense of responsibility and even teaches them valuable work and communication skills. “This is by no means meant to downplay what teachers are seeing firsthand, but no national study has been able to show [a significant connection] between a decrease in academic achievement and the average student who works a moderate amount of hours each week,” says Paul Barton, director of the Policy Information Center at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., and author of the National Assessment of Educational Progress report, Earning and Learning: The Academic Achievement of High-School Juniors With Jobs.

Of the 29,000 11th graders who participated in the NAEP survey, approximately 56 percent reported working each week. When work habits and academic achievement were analyzed, a clear pattern emerged: Juniors who worked a moderate amount of hours—up to 20 per week—achieved proficiencies in math, reading, and literature that were, on average, “almost identical” to those of nonworking students. In science, students working moderate hours scored slightly higher than nonworkers.

Only when students piled on the hours to more than 20 a week did their test scores fall, in comparison with their nonworking peers. Researchers are reluctant, however, to pin the blame for the lower scores solely on long work hours: They point out that adolescents who take on the heavy work schedules are also the ones who normally tend to do less well on tests, tend to avoid taking the hardest classes, and probably won't be going on to college anyway. As for student absenteeism, the NAEP's findings don't point to an increase in empty seats “until the hours of work become quite long,” more than 25 hours a week, Barton says.

Bicouvaris and others are not reassured by what the researchers have found. Their own experience convinces them that teens are working more than they should. “I have great respect for the work ethic,” she says. “But not for child labor, not for part-time students. And that's what it has come to.

“Too many students keep two jobs now—school and work—and give primary emphasis to the paying job,” she says. “They're working 30 and 40 hours a week. We all know kids who will try to do well at both and who will succeed. But many don't. It's not unusual for [working students] to be absent, with regularity, one out of every five days. They're home doing guess what? Catching up on sleep after working the ‘closing' shift. These kids can't play sports, be in Key Club or on the debate team. There's no time. There's no time for homework or studying, either.”

To illustrate her frustration, Bicouvaris recalls the time she offered an extra-credit assignment to her government class. When she told students they could watch President Reagan's farewell address and write a summary for extra points, “I had half the class jump on me, saying, ‘That's not fair. I can't watch it. I have to work,” she remembers. “They weren't being lazy—they all wanted to do it. But did anyone think of asking an employer for a schedule change because of school? No. I try to be understanding about work by offering alternative extra-credit options and letting students turn in homework late, but this doesn't solve the real problem.”

Even defenders of the after-school economy admit that for some students, part-time work may be a prescription for academic disaster. But they suggest that the youngster who takes on more than he or she can handle is the exception, not the rule. “There are kids out there who are floundering,” concedes Ivan Charner, director of research and development for the National Institute for Work and Learning and co-author of two major studies on working students. “Anywhere from 10 to 33 percent work 30 or more hours each week. That can be a problem. But for most kids, 20 hours is the magic number: Working that many, or fewer, a week does not seem to affect their grades. And the majority of kids do stick to within this range.

“What teachers need to keep in mind when they address this problem,” Charner explains, “is that it's a very individual thing: Some students do very well working a lot of hours and keeping up with their schoolwork. Some can't handle even a few hours. It's like school itself: You can give a talk to a class of 30, and some will get it and some won't.”

Eric Schulz is one student who knows what he can handle. A senior at Connecticut's Guilford High School, he gave up his cashier's job at a grocery store to concentrate on filling out college applications and to survive a crushing course load: physics, precalculus, computer-aided drafting, advanced Spanish, English literature, creative writing, and women's studies. “When I worked at the store last year, I could sometimes feel the pressure,” he says. “I worked about 25 hours a week, and my grades did go down some—maybe a letter grade in a subject or two. I caught up on sleep on weekends. This year, I'm sticking with soccer and studying. I'll make up for it by working a lot of hours in construction this summer.”

Though Eric felt his job pulled him down, others see a double standard at work. Charner, who headed an extensive review of much of the research on working teens called Youth and Work: What We Know, What We Don't Know, What We Need To Know, argues that jobs are “too often the only thing teachers blame when they see a drop in grades. How do we know the same doesn't apply to extracurricular activities?” Playing a sport and being on the student council, he points out, can have a student getting in the door at 9 P.M., the same way a paying job can. “Do we say extracurricular activities are O.K. because they're ‘for the school,' whereas work is only ‘for the kid?” he asks.

Critics of after-school jobs tend to be more comfortable with students spending hours in a gymnasium rather than logging time behind a french fryer because they believe many service-industry jobs are menial and mundane, and build skills no more valuable than knowing how to pile pickles on top of lettuce on top of meat patties. Yet research indicates skills learned after school can be important for teenagers.

“A working student learns employability skills,” Charner says. “He learns the basics, like teamwork, responsibility, proper grooming, how to take directions, and to show up on time.” What's more, according to Charner's study titled Fast Food Jobs, which surveyed of more than 4,000 employees of businesses such as McDonald's and Arby's, a significant number reported learning more than just the basics, such as general business principles (40 percent), an awareness of how a business runs (69 percent), dealing with different kinds of people (90 percent), training coworkers (18 percent), and supervising other workers (21 percent).

“Some of the work is boring, like taking out the garbage, but I learn an awful lot,” says Francine Kashnoski, a senior at Shamokin (Pa.) Area High School, who has been working at Wendy's restaurant for more than a year. “In fact, they offered me one of the assistant manager jobs—pretty good for just being a high school student. But I turned it down, because it takes a lot more out of you.” Joanne Dufrane sees her part-time job in the clothing department at J.C. Penney as something that's paving the way for her future. When she decided to start working in her sophomore year, she ruled out a food-service job because “fashion's more my type of thing,” says the senior at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. “But I also knew the marketing and sales that I'd learn would help me later since I want to study fashion merchandising or business management in college.” In response to charges that part-time jobs don't offer meaningful skill building, she notes, “You get out of it as much as you put into it.”

Laurence Steinberg would disagree. A professor of child and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is co-author of the widely publicized book, When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment (Basic Books, 1986). After studying 531 working and nonworking high schoolers in Orange County, Calif., Steinberg feels students get more—and less—than they bargained for when they become part of the after-school economy.

“The same youngsters who we're saying are going to learn how to be responsible by going to work, or [who will learn to be] punctual or dependable, have been asked to be responsible or punctual or dependable for 16 years or so in the educational system,” he said in an interview on National Public Radio's “Morning Edition.” “So it seems unlikely that someone who hasn't been able to be dependable all along is all of a sudden going to be able to learn that lesson from holding a job at a fast food outlet.”

In addition, he said his survey showed that “extensive part-time employment, and by extensive I mean more than 15 or 20 hours per week, tended to decrease youngsters' attachment to school. It led them to do less well in school, it increased their drug and alcohol use, and made them more cynical and more skeptical about work itself.” (No one is suggesting work drives students to drink, but rather, having money to burn enables youngsters to buy the drugs they otherwise might not be able to “afford.”)

Despite the dispute over what part-time jobs do or do not offer students, everyone agrees it's not likely they'll fall from favor with teenagers. Says teacher Dave Kinney, who is on the Minneapolis working-students task force with Jeff Solle: “The lure of money—I don't know how you stop it.”

Efforts are under way to at least stop the most excessive, and arguably damaging, forms of workaholism among students.

Federal law, which prohibits children younger than 16 from working past 7 P.M. when school is in session, says nothing about how late 16- and 17-year-olds may work. A handful of states have set a nighttime hour after which students may not work; others are in the process of doing so.

The committee on which Solle and Kinney serve tried to sway the Minnesota legislature to enforce a work curfew so students could not labor past 11 P.M. on school nights. The legislation didn't pass but has been reintroduced with the backing of the state's education association. “Businesspeople scream at teachers for not doing a good job,” Kinney notes, “but guess who lobbied against the bill? Restaurants were afraid they'd have to close early” if teens' hours were restricted. The committee is now planning a newspaper ad campaign to get businesses to voluntarily curb students' hours.

Some employers do, in fact, have their own student-welfare policies. The McDonald's Corporation, for instance, which employs one out of every 15 first-time job seekers and counts nearly 50 percent of its work force under age 20, teaches store managers to create flexible schedules, follow individual students' progress in school, and allow extended leaves for students who may need time off to pull up flagging grades. “If our employees' grades start to slip, it affects us, too,” notes Dan Gillen, director of store employment. He points out that in addition to the corporation offering scholarships to teens and working-student curriculum guides to schools, many of the franchise owners (only 25 percent of McDonald's restaurants are company-owned) donate their own money for scholarships and other prizes awarded to students with high or improved grades.

“When an employer says, ‘Let me see your report card. You must keep your grades up,' it takes on a new dimension rather than when a parent nags about it,” says Bicouvaris. Employers who do this and who limit the hours kids can work should be recognized, she says, adding that such steps would solve at least half the problem.

Charner suggests teachers and parents can address the other 50 percent. “Rather than saying, ‘work is good,' or, ‘work is bad,' we need to inform kids early in junior high about the work choices they'll have to make soon,” he explains. “Teach classes in time management—that's crucial. Teach a money class, where you get them to start a real savings account and talk about the chunk that taxes and Social Security take out of paychecks. Teach them about limited work hours, and how to not be afraid to tell an employer, ‘Wait. I can't work that much.”

Barton hopes to see everyone involved in helping students integrate jobs and school. “Our nation has, perhaps, drawn too sharp a dichotomy between the world of school and the world of employment,” he notes in Earning and Learning. If schools and businesses go to work on the problem together, he concludes, we will not only help teens with their studies, we will help them with their transition to adulthood.

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 36-39

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