Commentary | Education

Lessons—Linking Poor Performance to Working After School

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Linking poor performance to working after school

By  Richard Rothstein

American student proficiency seems to decline sharply in adolescence. On international tests, pupils here perform relatively well in elementary school, but then fall behind in middle school and even more starkly in high school.

This trend has spurred many education reform proposals, but the biggest difference between teenagers here and elsewhere may have less to do with instruction than with employment after school.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Survey, where low exam scores of American students stir such great concern, found that 55 percent of American 12th graders work three hours or more on a normal school day. The proportion for other nations is 18 percent, on average. To improve achievement, we have either got to cut back on after-school employment or transform adolescent jobs so they contribute more to learning.

The negative effects of employment — lower grades, school absenteeism, drug and alcohol use, less challenging course loads — seem to occur mostly when students work more than about 15 hours a week. Some evidence suggests that working less than that may actually improve learning. One study found that when students work after school to earn money for college, not for CD’s or high tops, achievement improves. Another found that employed teenagers steal time from watching television, not homework. If so, some jobs could be helpful.

Certainly, many Americans believe that teenage work teaches responsibility, punctuality, independence and self-confidence. Prof. Stephen Heyneman of Vanderbilt University, a former World Bank education analyst, says student jobs may explain why, despite lower academic scores, Americans are so productive. Dr. Heyneman says that teenage experience in applying for positions and cooperating with co-workers and supervisors may pay off later in an ability to adapt more easily than workers in other nations to new jobs and changes in work requirements.

But even if it is harmful, the employment of youths is now so crucial to the economy that curbing it is nearly impossible. Most teenagers earn money not to supplement family income or save for college, but for entertainment and clothing, comprising a $150 billion market.

The retail and fast-food sectors depend on young low-wage workers. Efforts in Congress and state legislatures to restrict student work hours meet fierce resistance from industry lobbyists who proclaim the character-building virtues of after-school jobs. Other industrialized nations have relatively higher service industry salaries to attract adult employees, so students are less needed.

If teenage work is an untouchable feature of American life, perhaps schools can enhance its virtues and reduce the harm. This is the idea behind the best school-to-work programs. Hours of work are limited, and teachers meet with work supervisors to coordinate job-based learning with academic studies.

Career-theme high schools in New York City and elsewhere try this with unpaid internships. But Philadelphia has 1,500 high school students spending up to two days a week in paid placements at hospitals, technology companies and other firms where work is more challenging than ringing a cash register. Teachers visit these workplaces in the summer, learning to incorporate practical applications into regular lessons. Students are graded for the work based on joint evaluations by a job supervisor and teacher.

Yet most students should not miss a day or two of classes each week. So the Philadelphia district is now asking employers to create after-school placements as well. Rochester, along with other districts, has such a program; students must enroll in college preparatory courses to be eligible.

Nationwide, only 13 percent of all 12th graders work in paid jobs obtained through school-business partnerships. And even these placements may not require coordination of curriculum and student evaluation by work supervisors and teachers together.

In 1994, Congress provided subsidies for such programs, but they came under fierce attack by conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly who asserted that the plan was a scheme to track students into dead-end employment, that it let “central planners” decide what jobs students should aim for and that it was wrongly designed to get girls to shun traditionally female occupations.

Last month the federal school-to-work office was closed, so schools now must develop such programs on their own. They should do so, along with the business leaders who have been fierce critics of graduate skills but whose teenage hiring practices contribute to poor achievement.

If we cannot stop students from working, we can certainly improve the kind of work they do. This could turn the excessive hours worked by American students from a national handicap to a strength.

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