BLACKSBURG, Va. - Kusum Singh, a professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Virginia Tech, questions the belief that part-time jobs benefit high school students. Her research suggests that students who work more than 20 hours per week take fewer math and science courses. Those students also perform more poorly on tests in those subjects than students who work fewer hours.
This unusually large study looked at more than 26,000 sophomores and seniors from about 1,000 high schools nationwide. It examined the impact part-time work had on students' course-taking and their achievement on math and science standardized tests. Even when socioeconomic status and previous educational achievement were taken into account, jobs still had a "significant negative effect" on coursework and achievement in math and science.
"The first 15 hours of work didn't seem to matter," says Singh. "But after that, when students are working 20 hours or more, it starts interfering with school performance."
The number of high school students holding part-time jobs has risen steadily over the past two decades. Forty-two percent of high school seniors, 33 percent of juniors, and 15 percent of sophomores worked part time in 1994, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations where adolescents commonly both work and attend school. American students' performance on science and math tests has lagged compared with that of other countries - an often-cited concern for education policymakers.
Singh's study, like several others, found no evidence that high-schoolers suffer academically if they limit work to under 15 hours a week. Some research suggests that when a high percentage of students at a school hold part-time jobs, the school's teaching and learning atmosphere shifts because teachers begin to lower their expectations for student performance.
Singh believes a more critical look at the issue is needed. "The common wisdom says work is good for children, but that is more theoretical than empirical," she says.
Singh's research was published in the November/December 2000 issue of the Journal of Educational Research.