Part-Time Jobs Often Pay for Luxuries, Interfere With School Work : Teen-Age Earning and Learning Don’t Always Mix, Educators Discover

Associated Press

To work or not to work? The question never comes up in Japan, where school is considered the only job fit for students.

But American teen-agers are working in droves, much of their cash going for cars, clothes, beer and sometimes drugs. They are perhaps learning the work ethic. But they are also learning conspicuous consumption, and some critics say they are compromising their education as well.

When she was named National Teacher of the Year last April, Mary Bicouvaris singled out working students and asked them to put a priority on school. “They are very busy people,” she said. “What I find deplorable many times is they work school into the business schedule rather than fit business into the school schedule.”


Most studies have shown little or no effect on school performance if students keep their work time to 20 hours a week. But the studies are based on averages that don’t apply to individual students. Plus, there are no federal hourly restrictions on teen-agers of 16 and 17, and many work far more than 20 hours.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which surveys tens of thousands of students on academic proficiency and recently added questions on work, estimates that more than half of all 11th graders and two-thirds of high school seniors have jobs.

Teachers all have their stories about students whose work lives have eclipsed their school lives, who leave the classroom to work seven hours at a fast-food restaurant and show up the next day unprepared, their heads nodding onto their desks.

“They will tell you: ‘I just don’t have time to do that assignment. I have to work,’ and they expect you to buy that,” says Patrick Welsh, an Alexandria, Va., English teacher who has written a book about high school.

“I don’t buy it,” he adds. “But what happens is a gradual and subtle erosion of standards and the amount of work you’re going to hit kids with. It’s happening all over the country.”

A Wisconsin study of four high schools did indeed find that teachers were making less demands on students than they had made five years before, at least partly in response to the students’ work schedules.

Work also has been associated with increased drug and alcohol use. Working kids have more money, are under more stress and may come into contact with older teen-agers more likely to have such habits, says Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University researcher and psychology professor.

“If your only outcome measure is test scores or grades, you may be missing something,” says Steinberg, co-author with Ellen Greenberger of a book called “When Teenagers Work.”

The book describes a 1982 study of 531 Orange County, Calif., teen-agers in which the authors found that work in excess of 15 to 20 hours a week tended to cause lower grades and diminished involvement in school.

“Earning and Learning,” a recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, said a review of other studies turned up no comparable results and added that “there is no cause for alarm concerning the academic performance of students who work.”

But Steinberg said his and Greenberger’s earlier results have been confirmed in a much larger study of 10,000 students in Wisconsin and California that has not yet been published.

Paul Barton, author of the NAEP report, said he did not mean to suggest that “this is a rosy situation for all students. The averages show no association between school and work, but individual circumstances should be taken into account. There are probably lots of kids buried in these averages who work long hours and do poorly, and I’m sure educators see them.”

The United States has by far the highest rate of working students in the world, with Canada a distant second, Steinberg says. “Working while one goes to high school is unheard of in Japan,” he says. “The Japanese society is organized such that school is the only thing that kids are to be concerned about while they’re teen-agers.”

In America, parents often approve of and even push their children to work. Many like knowing where their kids are and believe strongly that a job, even if it is only flipping hamburgers at a fast-food joint, builds character and teaches good work habits.

“Parents have this thing about the work ethic. You teach your children to work very hard in jobs like waiting tables or pumping gas, and this is a sign of responsibility. But a lot of those kids get very poor grades and a lot of that money goes for beer on weekends,” says Susan Dawes of Alexandria, Va.

Susan and David Dawes have raised two valedictorians who went on to Ivy League colleges. A third child with a straight-A average is headed for Princeton this fall. The three, all boys, were never allowed to hold outside jobs.

“They were spending three to four hours a night on homework,” Susan Dawes says. “My husband never wanted them to work during the school year. He had taken odd jobs during the school year and he just thought it was too much.”

Susan Dawes says she saw many kids with “a lot of money from their jobs and the parents didn’t quite have the control of what the kids spent their money on. I think a lot of it went to alcohol in some cases. A lot of times what they want the money for is nothing substantial, a better polo shirt. It’s not worth their working.”

Statistics back up Susan Dawes’ impression that most teen-agers are working for discretionary income, not money needed to support their families.

Teenage Research Unlimited, a Chicago-area research firm, found that teens had $31 billion in income derived from jobs, allowances and other money from their parents in 1988. The average teen-ager earns $61.50 a week, the company reported, and it is almost exclusively discretionary.

“Teens now buy products and services such as hi-tech televisions and VCRs, personal computers and automobiles,” TRU said. Other high-priority items are cosmetics, clothes, and sports and recreation equipment.

That kind of consumerism irks teachers who understand that while work is an economic necessity for some students, more seem to be earning money for designer clothes, car payments and entertainment.

“They place more value on the instant gratification than on the long-term value of getting a good education,” says Mary Futrell, a former high school business teacher who is winding up a six-year tenure as president of the National Education Assn.

“You don’t want to destroy the work ethic. But at the same time you know full well that this is interfering with their education,” she adds. “We need a better balance. We need to make sure young people and their families understand that the primary focus has to be on education. And if the job interferes with the education, they should quit the job.”

Teachers and others may bemoan their students’ preoccupation with work, but the service sector’s voracious need for employees assures that any student who wants a job will find one. Competition is so tough for older teens that employers are dipping deeper into the 14- and 15-year-old age group.

In many cases, schools and parents are required to sign off on student work permits, giving them an opportunity to intervene if they think the job will be too much for the student to handle along with school. “As it stands now, most schools don’t take advantage of that opportunity,” Steinberg said.

He said that is because schools are susceptible to the demands of local industry and the need for good community relations. In California, Steinberg said, principals “told us employers would call them and say: ‘We need more students. Can you let more of them out of school early?’ ”

The press of unfilled jobs led the Reagan Administration to propose easing hourly restrictions on 14- and 15-year-olds, who may now work only three hours on school days and no more than 18 hours a week when school is in session.

A Labor Department advisory committee concluded last fall that “the prime responsibility for this age group should be toward their educational and developmental needs” and said permissible work hours should not be expanded. The department is expected to heed the panel’s recommendation.

At the other end of the spectrum, New York legislators are pondering proposals to cut back work hours for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are under no federal constraints. Under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s plan, they would be limited to four hours of work on school days and 28 hours a week while school is in session.

In proposing the change last May, Cuomo acknowledged that work experience can be valuable and that teen-agers are an important labor pool for state businesses. But he added that “it would be very shortsighted for New York to have any child labor policies that limit our young people’s educational achievement.”