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Combining work with schooling could negatively affect children’s learning and future earnings if such work reduces their proficiency in academic skills. However, work outside of school might also provide an alternative route to adult socialization and to material welfare if school systems do not serve children’s needs. Outside of the United States, estimating of the skills/work relationship is not an academic question only, but is also of crucial policy importance. This paper illuminates debates over after-school student employment by analyzing newly-available student testing data from fifteen American countries. The first findings from this analysis show that there is no level of employment, paid or unpaid, that is not associated with lower levels of mathematics and reading proficiency.
Although primary schooling is now universal in the region, sociologists of education and labor can help advance a policy debate by illuminating the trade-offs involved when young students work.
Following the international ratifications twenty-five years ago of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in the wake of the subsequent Education for All and Millennium Development Goals movement, universal access to basic, quality education became accepted, more than ever before, both as a human right and a priority for public policy. Most countries in Latin America have since seen a significant shift into schools by their populations of working children, at least through the completion of primary. However, this shift has not meant that children necessarily have abandoned the world of work. Instead, particularly in certain countries, children now combine schooling with part-time employment. The rights-based approach to universal educational has not led to the eradication of child labor any more than it has eliminated the dependence by many families on their children’s earnings.
This paper focuses on the sixth grade children attending schools in fifteen Latin American nations where, in the not-distant-past, child labor was a serious obstacle to universalized school access. Today primary education today has been universalized. The purpose of this paper is, first, to share the findings from student achievement data (TERCE). Second, these data serve to highlight a theoretical debate in the sociology of children’s development and labor. Third, from a public policy perspective, the insights of these newly-available data could bolster the arguments to mobilize in favor of safer and more developmentally appropriate activities for children. To summarize the main findings, there is no country and no amount of employment by children during primary school that is not at least associated with substantial deficits in reading and mathematics proficiency. The investigation emphasizes the immediate personal and public benefits of reducing child labor. Teachers and trade unionists could build powerful arguments against child labor based on the positive consequences of reducing children’s work and increasing their learning. In all countries where we have evidence work is likely to diminish the likelihood of school successes, thereby also diminishing the productivity and development of their societies.