Working lowers math & science test scores for eighth graders

August 08, 1999

Chicago -- Even traditional student jobs like mowing the lawn, babysitting or delivering newspapers may lower math and science scores, according to Penn State researchers. Working outside school affects not only U.S. children, but children worldwide.

"Boys, and to a lessor extent girls, show substantial negative effects on math and science achievement associated with after-school employment, even after controlling for family background effects," says Dr. David Post, associate professor of education.

Post and Dr. Suet-ling Pong, associate professor of education, looked at the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), a 1988 random sample of eighth graders across the U.S. that followed students through high school. NELS collected data on student's families, in school and after-school activities and tracked their academic progress.

"The nature of NELS is such that we could distinguish between light work, such as baby sitting and delivering newspapers and heavy work, such as farm work or construction," Post told attendees today (Aug. 8) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago. "For boys, clear evidence exists that working during eighth grade has detrimental effects on achievement and on learning math and science in the tenth grade. The evidence for girls is less dramatic, but still significant."

Previous studies, which looked only at grades, indicated that working had no effect, but the Penn State researchers looked at math and science achievement, not grades, and found a negative effect. In fact, those male students in eighth grade who worked at farming, construction or commercial sector jobs more than two hours a week, were more adversely affected than those in traditional jobs like yard work or babysitting. However, the students doing light work were also adversely affected as compared with those students who did not work at all.

Educators have argued that working while in school has benefits not obtainable through formal schooling. Hours spent working rather than doing school work increased students' sense of responsibility, interpersonal relationships and self image and allowed them to interact and learn from their elders. Now, the "adult" supervisor in charge is likely to be 18 years old.

"The workplace separation of youth from adults altered the quality of interactions and possibility for skill transfer from the older generation," says Post.

Many jobs give kids little else than hourly wages as they operate fast-food cash registers having burger and soda coded keys rather than old-fashioned numerals and not requiring even the rudiment of arithmetic.

"We also wanted to know if this phenomenon occurred only in the U.S. or if it had a broader, international context," says Post.

The Penn State researchers looked at the U.S. eighth grade data in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to see if the TIMSS data showed the same negative effect.

"We could see very similar results in the U.S. TIMSS data," says Post. "We then felt we could use this data to see if the effect occurred universally."

TIMSS is not a longitudinal study, but rather looks at achievement in math and science for fourth, eighth and twelfth graders in countries around the world. The TIMSS study also does not compile information about the student's families, but it does ask whether the students worked outside school for pay.

"Those countries where students more often worked for pay had lower overall scores than those where eighth grade students do not work outside school," says Post. "This was even significant for girls in those countries where girls work outside the house."

Educators around the world need to be aware of the detrimental impact of working after school on math and science achievement.

"Child welfare advocates in many countries spend enormous energy just trying to get kids into school and to pass compulsory laws requiring universal education," says Post. "However, requiring children to attend school does not decrease the need for these children to work."

The researchers suggest that ultimately, child welfare advocates need to reform child labor laws as well as provide the opportunity for education.
EDITORS: Dr. Post is at 814-863-3786 or by email; Dr. Pong is at 814-863-3770 or by email.

Penn State

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