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Changing the Picture of Working while in High School

By Dr. Stephanie Ellis

Long have educators and mental health professionals known that working while in school has mixed benefits and detriments for student development. And long have we believed that more hours equals worse performance. In fact, there’s been a rule of thumb for quite some time that – while in high school – anything over 15 hours per week should be avoided. Alas, for many students who are partly (or even fully!) supporting their family,  that is impossible.

A new look at the data now suggests the picture is much more complex (as we should suspect, since we are complex people living in a complex culture and a complex world). A recent article in Developmental Psychology (Bachman, Staff, O’Malley, & Freedman-Doan, 2013) reports findings from over 600,000 high school students over two decades that show strong cultural influences in how school and work impact students.

Let’s start with this: It’s easy to assume that long work hours means less time for homework and study, which causes lower grades. And that’s certainly possible. But also consider the self-selection explanation – that students who are doing poorly academically choose to work more hours (for many possible reasons). And what about cultural differences? There are clear differences in both ethnicity and SES in terms of how often students get hired (i.e., White and Asian American students and those from a high SES background are more likely to be hired) and how many hours they work (i.e., Latino/a and African American students and those from a lower SES background are much more likely to work longer hours).

And now let’s add this: In addition to the strong, repeat finding that longer work hours correlate with lower school performance, longer work hours also correlate with more substance use! So is impulsivity a factor in all three? How about stress? Are students who work longer just out at night more, so they’re more likely to drink and use drugs, and thus don’t perform as well at school? Or is something else going on? What clarity can we get here?

Bachman et al.’s (2013) findings don’t answer this question. If anything, they add a shade more to the complexity of the issue. Here’s the big news: White, Asian American, and higher-SES students show MUCH stronger correlations among the three variables (that is, when they work longer hours, their school work suffers much more and they are more prone to substance use). This pattern is much less evident for Latino/a, African American, and low-SES students. In a nutshell, “it thus appears that any costs possibly attributable to long hours of student work are most severe for those who are most advantaged” (p. 1).

Here are some possible explanations the authors give: Among the more advantaged students, those who choose to work long hours, drink more, and underperform in school are just the ones who are acting out, and all three of those domains are areas for them to show their rebelliousness.  For the less advantaged students, those who are selected for jobs may be those who are less prone to problematic behaviors like drinking and low academic effort. It may also be that more advantaged students work less because they need to and more to accumulate “play money,” whereas those students from less advantaged backgrounds see their work as important for supporting the family financially and as a stepping stone for their careers, which could indicate different value systems that interact differently with academic work and substance use. These are just a few among many possible explanations, but they serve to begin describing the complexity of these issues.

So it’s to you, now…

Teachers and future teachers – what do you make of this? What does it tell you about helping students balance their lives and achieve academically?

College and graduate students – what’s your story? How much are you working? Partying? Studying? What relationship do you think these factors have for you?

And here’s the full reference, if you want to read the article for yourself:

Bachman, Staff, O’Malley, & Freedman-Doan. (2013). Adolescent work intensity, school performance, and substance use: Links vary by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Developmental Psychology, no pp. doi: 10.1037/a0031464


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