The Educational System in the United States: Case Study Findings, March 1999

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Chapter 4 - The Role of School
in United States Adolescents' Lives
(Part 2 of 4)

Time Use in Adolescents' Lives

For adolescents in the United States, school occupies a significant amount of time during the 9-month academic year, but it often fits into a complex schedule of athletic events, social life, after-school activities, studying, employment, and family time. The priority placed on these sometimes competing demands varies widely, as does access to various opportunities. For many students, school is not only about classes, but it is also the hub of an active life; school is where they meet friends and socialize, participate in sports, pursue personal interests through a variety of activities, try out leadership roles, and express themselves through musical and theatrical productions. For others, school is the place where they are expected to be between select hours of the day, but the connection between school and the wider world, personal life, or future goals may be tenuous.

After-school time may be scheduled with activities and sports, or it may be loosely structured. Many students manage part-time jobs, often scheduled immediately after school. Once students arrive home, weekday time seems to revolve around schoolwork, television, friends, family, and chores. Weekends are typically spent relaxing with friends and family, catching up on schoolwork, pursuing paid employment, and engaging in a range of leisure pursuits.


School takes a number of structural forms for U.S. adolescents, particularly during the middle years. Even within the same city there may be significant variations. For example, we interviewed some eighth-grade students who were in the middle year of junior high, other eighth-graders who were in the final year of middle school, and still others in the final year of elementary school—all within the same urban community. By 10h grade, however, all students are attending high school. This does not mean they have a common set of experiences, however, for U.S. high schools are remarkably disparate in their offerings, and even those students attending the same school may have vastly different experiences, depending on their course of study. To speak of "school" for U.S. adolescents, therefore, is to evoke a multiple, diverse array of experiences and institutions.

One thing that is fairly common across the United States is the length of the required school day. Most students described a formal school day of 6 to 7 hours. A fairly typical pattern might be from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with some students arriving early for federally-subsidized breakfast programs, and many arriving early or staying late for extracurricular activities and sports. Junior high and high school students usually have six or more classes a day and move from class to class, changing teachers each period. Classes typically run about 40 to 50 minutes, with a brief passing time in between, and a short lunch period (often no more than 20 to 30 minutes). In most cases students are expected to stay in the building once they arrive and to eat lunch in the school cafeteria, although some schools permit older students to leave the school during their lunch period.

The class schedule usually remains consistent throughout the week, with students attending the same classes in the same sequence each day for a term. Individual schedules often change at the end of the term, as some courses are offered for the whole academic year and others for only one term. Variations occur in middle schools and in those elementary schools that house seventh- and eighth-graders (at those we visited). Generally, students may move from class to class as a group, changing teachers and subjects together for most classes, perhaps with some variation for elective courses; in other schools, students may take several classes with the same teacher. A typical eighth-grade daily schedule appears in table 2.

Table 2—Typical schedule for an eighth-grade middle school student
Time Activity

8:00–8:20 Advisory Period
9:15–10:00 English
10:05–10:50 Algebra or Prealgebra
10:55–11:40 Elective class (foreign language, art, gym, shop, computer, chorus, band, orchestra)
11:45–12:05 Lunch
12:10–12:55 Science
1:00–1:45 Elective class (foreign language, art, gym, shop, computers, chorus, band, orchestra)
1:50–2:35 U.S. History (or other social studies class)

The courses students take during these hours vary widely. In early adolescence, regardless of the structure of schooling, most students across the country are enrolled in similar classes that cover the standard fundamentals of the curriculum (English, math, social studies, science), but this soon changes. The process of determining who will take advanced courses usually begins with placement in the first algebra course. Once offered fairly uniformly as a ninth-grade course, algebra is now an eighth grade option in many schools, and in the more elite schools in two of the three cities studied, it was offered to a small number of precocious seventh-graders. Placement in this course may carry connotations of prospective academic success, and parents eager for such confirmation of their child's potential may push for early enrollment in algebra. Scores on annual standardized tests and parent requests were mentioned most often as the basis for these placement decisions; it is not uncommon, however, for parental influence to take precedence over test scores.

Although math is often the initial class in which students are separated by perceived ability, this division soon happens throughout the curriculum. By the early years of high school, students who sat side by side in elementary school may seldom see one another again. In large urban high schools there are fairly distinct curricula for those who are college-bound and those who are not. Even among those headed to college, decisions must be made about whether to take the more rigorous advanced-placement courses and honors courses or the traditional academic versions. These classes often carry different numbers of credits, involve differing degrees of depth, and are described by students as differing in classroom ambiance, with the higher-track classes drawing more serious students who are more likely to stay on task. As one student at Uptown High School noted about his preference for honors English: "You can concentrate better, because in my regular English class there were a lot of disturbances. Honors English has a more positive environment, although it is the same teacher." Similarly, mathematics class can have a dramatically different tone and purpose even in the same school with the same teacher. In one school, a factory clock with individual time cards was mounted on the classroom wall. Arriving for general math, students shuffled in, pulled their cards and punched in, before taking their seats. The teacher explained that this was a part of the school's effort to prepare them for the work world they would soon be entering. During a later honors precalculus class held in the same room, the college-bound students made no use of the apparatus.

Although there are these widely differing courses, there is often some fluidity among who takes them. Students might take advanced classes in some subjects and not in others. It is not unusual, for example, for a student to be perceived as capable of the more advanced types of classes in math but not in English, and vice versa. With each semester's enrollment, students select courses from a menu of options of both required and elective courses within the parameters of minimum high school graduation requirements set by the state, and, for those who are college bound, with attention to the requirements set by colleges and universities that students might wish to attend. For example, some states require 2 years of high school math (at any level) for graduation and have no foreign language requirements; universities in the same states, however, might expect 3 to 4 years of math and at least 2 years of a foreign language.

Those going immediately to work after graduating from high school seem to hope that the diploma alone, regardless of actual courses taken, will suffice for entry positions, as there is little formal articulation of employer needs in shaping high school curricula. The significant exceptions to this were the small number of vocational programs we observed within large high schools that had been designed cooperatively with industry.

Accordingly, it is possible for different students to have markedly different academic experiences, even within the same high school. At Uptown High School, one senior described a course load that included honors chemistry and calculus, American government, a foreign language, and a literature course, while a junior in the same school described a school day sequence of tech math, tech English, gym, band, and computer class. These "tech" versions of courses often represent simplified approaches to the subject matter for students who are not planning to attend college. For those students for whom English is not their native language, the curriculum may take on further variations. Some students have the proficiency to take regular courses except in English, where they enroll in special English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. Others may arrive speaking little or no English. These students are accommodated in different ways, depending on the school and on their native language. Schools with large immigrant populations may provide bilingual programs, in which all the basic courses are taught in the students' native language while the student learns English.

Students must make selections from among these many offerings, often with limited information about the implications of their choices for future academic work, college planning, or vocational options. Informal knowledge often takes precedence, and those students whose parents or peers are well informed have clear advantages in developing an academic plan that will enhance their future academic or occupational opportunities.

Variation of both academic and nonacademic programs across schools is affected by financial considerations. Schools plan their programs within a budget allotted by state-determined practices, typically based on property taxes. Per capita spending for education can vary greatly within the same region, providing more resources for schools in higher-income school districts. (All figures reported were provided in the schools' annual statistical reports.) For example, within the Metro City area, the amount of money spent per student was reported as approximately $6,600 at the inner city Uptown High School, $10,300 at Springdale High School, and $13,400 at suburban Hamilton High School. In the schools observed, these differences in funding were cited as explanations for differences in teacher-student ratios, availability of textbooks, computer resources, and the presence (or absence) of sports, music, and student organizations. Parents may also raise additional money for use by the school for special purchases or extracurricular activities; such fund-raising is likely to be more successful in higher-income neighborhoods.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are believed to play multiple roles for students: they stimulate interest, occupy leisure time, provide opportunities for social interaction, and enhance college applications. There are students who take full advantage of these opportunities, fitting a remarkable assortment of activities into their schedule and often extending the school day in both directions. A female senior whose family had immigrated to the United States only a couple years earlier described an intensive academic load that included several advanced-placement courses plus participation in a select academic competition with other schools, an activity for which she practiced during an additional school period and on holidays. Asked if she had other extracurricular activities, she replied,

Yes, I am secretary of the national honor society. I am secretary of the French club, the swim team, and the pom-pom club. I also am a math tutor. I see so many interesting things and people, so I want to do and learn as much as I can. Sometimes I don't feel like I have time, but I try. (Twelfth-grader, Uptown)

This student was one of many who described half a dozen or more activities in which they were simultaneously involved. Many students play an instrument in the band or orchestra, an activity that also necessitates at-home practice. Some schools offer athletic competition at various skill levels, including intramural, junior varsity, and varsity, in a dozen or more separate sports. Most lobbies in the high schools we visited had large trophy cases that proclaimed years of victories. Students can participate in student government and honorary societies, and they may choose to assume roles with the school newspaper or yearbook. School theatrical productions draw many, including those eager to be on stage and those who are happy behind the scenes. Interest clubs abound, including various social and political action groups, chess clubs, and computer groups—and in the most affluent schools, groups that meet nearly every interest, however obscure. As one Hamilton High School student remarked: "Man, I mean we even have a snake club! We have a lot of things to do at this school."

Sports engage the lives of many, and though opportunities have increased for girls over the decades, boys were more likely to talk about the role of sports in their lives. Those involved in competitive sports may spend 2 to 3 hours daily in scheduled practice during the season. Some spoke of waking as early as 5:30 a.m. to attend before school swim and gymnastics practices, and others talked of staying till 6:00 p.m. on a daily basis. Opportunities also exist for less competitive athletics. The more casual participant may move from sport to sport through school intramurals or community-based programs, and a number of students talked about their involvement in three or more sports each year. A student at King Junior High School, asked about the importance of extracurricular activities in his life, spoke enthusiastically:

Well, they make school more fun for me . . . . I was on a basketball team and that was fun, and it gives you exercise at the same time you're having fun, and I'm thinking about playing boys' volleyball and running track.

Not all students attend schools that offer such a range of activities. Some students described a pattern of engaging in school sports that were later eliminated in budget cuts. At the most extreme end, one principal described the demise of his school's football team when a violent gang fight erupted on the field during competition. Currently this school offers few interscholastic sports and no after-school activities, as teachers are described as unwilling to stay after the school day ends, because they are fearful for their safety. An African-American student at this school enthusiastically described the single activity that she has found available:

My English teacher, she started a group for girls, cause we don't have no girl activities, but somebody donated a thousand dollars for us to start up our little group that we call `Girls in the Hood.' That's coming along good. We make a magazine, we write articles about sisterhood. It started about 2 months ago, and we go on trips and stuff. Like we just went on a trip last Thursday. We went to a writing workshop.

In most schools, extracurricular activities also include programs of academic enrichment. Many students spoke enthusiastically of academic competitions, such as the Science Olympiad, academic decathlons, and math competitions, as well as school and regional science fairs. For some of these activities, students must be selected for participation by teachers, while others are open to all that wish to participate.

In some schools, notably those in upper-middle-class neighborhoods, another aspect of extracurricular activities are social service projects, often initiated by teachers at the middle school level as a way to heighten student awareness of the larger world. Sometimes this is introduced as a part of "multiculturalism" in the curriculum, alerting students to differing populations and differing needs. Typically, students select a cause and raise money for it within their own families by selling tickets to school dinners or selling various. One student commented:

There are food and clothing drives for the needy. Right now the executive cabinet is doing something for the Leukemia Foundation. We are making hats for sale with the school logo on them . . . . We are working on our eighth-grade gift, and we will contribute this to the Leukemia Foundation. There is also a spaghetti dinner or a pancake breakfast. These are fund-raisers. (Eighth-grader, Vanderbilt)

Parents also talked about the role of extracurricular activities in their students' lives. A high school parent at Springdale raved about the opportunities her daughter's school offered:

If the parent is encouraging their child, and you have the type of child who is geared to buy into the school community, they can really extract a lot of experience. And then you find a niche here. Everyone is not a theater person, everyone is not a musician, but you may have a math scholar, or you may have a chess scholar, or you may have an athlete, or you may have a singer, or you may have a writer. And I think that's what's so important.

For many parents and teachers, it is the pursuit and nurturing of individual interests that seem valuable. For some students, these activities also involved a strong social aspect. For example, students in one of the theater groups spoke with pride of the number of hours spent preparing for a performance and of the friendships that grew from common interest and shared experiences. For other students, however, these choices may have more to do with building a resume and bolstering college applications. Students attending high schools where the vast majority will attend college know that they must distinguish themselves from others with similarly excellent academic records. For such students, choosing extracurricular activities can be quite calculated and lead to a life of frenzied activity as early as middle school.

A group interview with students at a large urban high school where most go on to college generated an interesting discussion about the variety of opportunities available and students' motivation for involvement. One student noted:

I would say that a lot of people use extracurricular activities on their college applications. It looks good for the college recruiters. Like languages. Or you are president of student activities or something. (Eleventh-grader, Springdale)

Each school of this sort has its own legend of the rejected student who "only" excelled academically. One such story at this same school was about

. . . . a kid who graduated with perfect grades, was class valedictorian, was third out of 1,100 in his class. He did not get into his school of choice because he had done soccer all 4 years and that is it. They want more than just one activity. The colleges want someone who is involved, who is spread out, who spreads themselves out, and who does not do one thing throughout high school. (Eleventh-grader, Springdale)

Such stories are indicative of the pressure some college-bound students feel to appear "well-rounded," hoping that they will be able to develop an appropriate roster of activities for their college admission applications.

After-School Activities

For many students the school day ends by 2:30 p.m., but students vary widely as to when they actually leave school, as well as in the degree to which the remaining hours of the day are structured and planned. How they spend their time after school depends on the availability of community activities, personal aspirations, family finances, the encouragement and involvement of parents, and peer influence. Some lead remarkably complex lives and may appear as harried as their corporate parents; others may focus on just one or two activities, while others seldom engage in organized activities outside of school. Here are two portraits from our interviews, describing the use of after-school time:

I spend about 2 hours hanging out with my friends. If I get home about 3 p.m., I eat—you know, anything I can find, then watch TV, cartoons mostly, till about 5 o'clock. Then I go outside for a little while and play ball with friends, then I play video games and then go to sleep. (Male student, South Central)

I stay in school until about 4 or 4:30 p.m. because I have to study for the academic decathlon, or I go to the computer lab to finish a project. I also take classes at the university, so I have projects I have to complete. Other days I might have to go to pom-pom practice or swimming practice. I usually get home after 4:30 p.m. I relax a little by listening to classical or soft rock music or looking at TV for about an hour . . . . At about 6 p.m. I start my homework, and I finish about 9 p.m. (Female student, Uptown)

For parents of adolescents, knowing that a child's after-school time is spent in planned school or community activities serves multiple purposes. In addition to providing worthwhile activities for their adolescents, working parents, likely to arrive home after 5 or 6 p.m., hope that organized after-school activities will keep children "off the streets." As one mother of children in Springdale said, "I've tried to have my kids in different activities, to keep them out of trouble." Many parents expressed fears about adolescent use of unsupervised leisure time. Recent studies from the National Center for Juvenile Justice show that the peak hours for juvenile crime are 3 to 6 p.m., the period between school closing and parents' arrival home.

Custodial daycare programs that provide supervision for students during this period of time are most common at the elementary level in the United States, exist in some middle schools, and disappear by high school. By early adolescence most after-school programs, both in the schools and those in the community, are interest based. The hope is to engage student participation. One middle school parent described an array of after-school programs in her community from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. that included "a homework program for math and reading, computer class, science class, music, and tap dance. And if they don't participate in the things here at the school, then at 4:00 p.m. there are park district programs."

For students in wealthier neighborhoods, after-school activities often include a range of private lessons, from ballet to violin to figure skating. Again, a strategic focus on the future rather than strong interest on the part of the student may drive the choice of after-school activities, and parents in affluent neighborhoods initiate this process for their children at quite young ages. Middle school teachers in these communities spoke of students missing school for activities that parents felt took precedence and of the pressure students experience not only to keep up with demanding schedules but also to meet parental expectations that they will distinguish themselves in areas of individual talent and interest. A mother describes her seventh-grade son's time after school:

On Mondays he takes guitar lessons. He is a member of a traveling ice hockey team and has been on the team for 4 years. They have practices during the week, generally in the evenings, anywhere from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m. Then on weekends they have ice hockey games. He also has a paper route on Wednesdays. I help him get his papers delivered. With my husband he's gotten into biking and is competing in different events. He sets his own goals. He's trying to do century rides-bike 100 miles and you earn a badge . . . He's building his own bike . . . . He has a lot of friends over after school . . . . He just did a video with a friend for his social studies class that took about 4 days to script. It was the story of the Lewis and Clark adventure . . . . On Thursdays he stays for math club. He was one of the competitors at the state math and science academy and he placed . . . . Sundays we go to church together, and Wednesday nights I teach a group of seventh-graders from our church, who come to our home. (Mother, King Junior High)

Another area of after-school time is additional coursework, and several advanced high school students spoke of courses taken at nearby colleges, either on their own or through special programs. A number of minority students spoke of organized supplementary programs aimed at encouraging their path toward college. A 16-year-old Hispanic student in West City described his after-school time, this way:

After school, I am taking another class at (the state university), calculus 3. So that is 2 hours, and then I come home and do the same thing. That is only on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays after school I have to go to (another university) for another program, Upward Bound . . . . It is a program for minorities. We get helped a lot. We can take field trips to a lot of universities . . . . We go to other places, like Washington, DC and Hawaii. Tuesdays and Thursdays, we get a tutor, mostly math.

An African-American freshman from Metro City described a similar program at a nearby university, where he took classes on weekends and spent 6 weeks in the summer. Students involved in these activities seemed highly enthusiastic, but expressed concern that not all students had such opportunities nor took advantage of them when they were available. Enrollment processes seem somewhat haphazard or at least not obvious to all eligible adolescents, and students spoke largely of having been given individual encouragement by teachers, who identified those who might benefit and provided the information necessary for registration.

Homework and Studying

One of the predictable after-school tasks for most students is homework or studying. The amount of time devoted to these pursuits ranged widely, as did the priority that either was accorded. Students also seemed to vary in their understanding of what kind of work is expected outside of class beyond the specified assignments and whether "studying" was a routine activity or reserved for pretest nights. Previous studies have indicated a considerable range in student reports of time spent on homework; according to the most recent figures, nearly a quarter of 13- and 17-year-olds surveyed report spending no time on homework, nearly a third report spending less than an hour a day, and just over a quarter of both age groups report spending 1 to 2 hours (NCES 1995).

The time students actually spend on homework is difficult to determine. Many students claim that it varies from 30 minutes to an hour, perhaps more before a test or when a project is due. Those who claimed up to 3 or 4 hours a night often qualified that with a disclaimer about the variety of interspersed tasks. High school students, whose studying is less monitored by parents than that of their younger siblings, often spread their homework throughout the evening, doing it between phone calls and TV programs. As one 15-year-old replied:

Like when there is a game on, I'll watch. Then at half time I do my work and then comes second half. That is probably why it takes me 4 hours to do my homework (laughs). If I went straight through it, it probably wouldn't take me that long. (Ninth-grade male, Hamilton)

Another 15-year-old said,

How many hours of my day are spent on homework, or how many hours am I doing homework? If I have 2 hours of homework, it might take me 4 hours, because I am a procrastinator. (Tenth-grade male, Springdale)

The amount of homework assigned varies with the type of classes in which students are enrolled. Students on a college-preparatory track may have more rigorous assignments than others and expect to spend more time on homework. A high school freshman reported that "on the weekend I have about 3 or 4 hours of homework to do, because I have projects all of the time, papers to write, and research to do." A college-bound senior, a recent immigrant in a poorer school who has seized all that has been offered to her, enthusiastically described 3 hours a night of work that included assigned work, optional activities, and preparation for the two college courses she was taking on weekends.

Right now I am focusing on my American society class because we have a mock trial coming up. I also spend a lot of time on chemistry and calculus. I usually do my French during school . . . . And I'm reading a Russian novel to prepare for a play that an English class is going to do—it's not my class but the teacher asked if I wanted to accompany them. I'm rereading the novel on which the play is based—I thought it would be a good idea to do that. (Twelfth-grader, Uptown)

Not all students found homework so interesting, particularly at the middle school level, where assignments may consist of repetitious practice problems and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. An eighth-grade male student at Vanderbilt noted:

I don't do all my homework all the time. Maybe if I don't have enough stuff to do, then I'll do my homework. But usually I just come in and do it in advisory (class) and have all my homework done. I wish I had more challenging homework. I would do it.

The nature of homework. One might logically expect that "homework" would consist of tasks that teachers expect students to do at home. It appears increasingly common, however, that homework is often done in school and simply represents work that teachers expect to be done independently, usually before the next class meeting. Class time may be provided for this, particularly if the planned class lesson ends early, or students make use of study halls, advisory periods, or lunch time. Accordingly, answers about the amount of time students spend on homework need not indicate the time spent after school on this enterprise. An eighth-grade junior high school student, asked about the amount of homework he had, replied:

The teachers usually try to assign about 2 hours, but I can usually finish in a short amount of time, 30 minutes to an hour or less, because some will let you do it in class and we have a study hall course that everybody is in.

Two 11th-grade males, interviewed together, also called this a common practice at their school. Homework consisted of what they were unable to finish in class. One, who described working at a part-time job from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., followed by basketball in the park till 8:00, said:

Then afterwards I will go home and do my homework, if I have it. Most of the time I complete my homework at school. Usually I have homework in English and math, but I have time to do it in class.

Teachers, especially those in poorer schools, offered their own rationale for the practice of providing class time for homework:

Studying—that is a low priority to be honest. I know it is. That is why teachers have to find ways to get them to study while in class, while they are in front of us. And that is bad, because it takes away a lot of instructional time and activity time, time that you could do something else if they did homework. But many of them don't take books home, so we know they don't study. (Business teacher, South Central)

These patterns may lead to less use of class time for direct instruction. Homework time in class is generally silent, solitary time, with students completing work individually.

Using class time for homework was also attributed to a lack of resources at South Central:

I usually leave time in my lesson plan for each one to at least get a start on the work so that at least they can get half of it done, and they will complete the rest even in another class or during lunch. I also don't include much homework. In fact, a lot of the time I have no choice, because we only have one set of books for the 160-175 students that I teach, and they can't take the books home . . . . We really just have very little resources. And my first year here I did give out homework, and I found myself losing books. I was also setting students up for failure, because they wouldn't do it, and I was having all this anxiety because I thought that they weren't doing my homework because they didn't like me. You just learn that that is just the way things are. (English teacher, South Central)

Across town at Springdale High School, a teacher gave a different view:

I would say that each teacher gives anywhere between a half-hour to an hour of homework per night, sometimes less. So the kids may have a couple of hours of homework. If the kids are carrying five courses, then they may have 2 to 3 hours of homework, but they do have study hall time during the day to do the homework . . . . Generally, most of the kids do their work. There are some kids that grasp the concept and find the homework tedious. (Math teacher, Springdale)

Students may attribute their academic achievements to the amount of homework assignments given by teachers. At Uptown, two students who reported making B's and C's on average were asked if they wanted to make A's. The first commented, "Everybody does," and his friend said, "Yeah. We do all our homework, but teachers don't give that much homework—so we don't study that much."

Studying. For some students, homework and studying are synonymous, and if there are no homework assignments, then there is no studying to be done. Or the term "studying" may be used to connote the review of class material, an activity that occurs mostly at test time. A female vocational school student, when asked if most people study after school, replied:

No, I study sometimes, like if I got a big test, but I don't study too much, cause you probably forget what you studied the night before. I go over what I think I know for sure, and when the time comes, if I pass, I pass, and if I don't, I don't—that's how I feel.

Many students seem uncertain about what the process of studying entails, indicate a limited repertoire of study strategies, and appear poorly prepared to do academic work outside of class other than short assignments. An eighth-grader at Metropolitan said that she didn't take notes during her classes because "when we take tests, I want to see how much I learned. I don't take notes and I don't study for none of my tests, but I always pass them." She explained that this enabled her to see just how much she had learned directly from the teacher. "See, if I study, I be forgetting stuff, that is why . . . . You forget cause you study and you be like trying to think and stuff. When you don't, it just pops in (your head) when you see it on your paper." She claimed she tried studying for a test, got a D, and "then I decided, I ain't gonna study no more."

Other students may limit the time they spend on homework and studying because they have chosen to focus their attention elsewhere. Some acknowledge direct competition between homework and social life and a willingness to accept the consequences:

For English and drafting sometimes I took the book home and studied on my own. But not all the time. People who do it all the time might not want to go out much. I want straight A's, but I will settle for a B. It's not a bad grade. (Eleventh-grade male, Uptown)

Parental involvement in homework. Parents expressed concern about the near absence of homework for some students, wondering how it is that their children could get it done during school, a phenomenon that seemed new since their own school days. Some seemed to feel that students would be better served by being assigned more homework.

Parental involvement in homework declines throughout adolescence. Parents spoke most often of monitoring time, assuring that their children were attending to required assignments. This was most common among middle school and junior high parents.

There has to be a homework time. There's no TV, no radio, no anything, until everybody's done with homework . . . . Homework is a must in our house. And they have to prove to me that it's done. (Mother of four children, fifth through eighth grade, Metropolitan)

After middle school, parents are less likely to be involved in checking the work or providing direct assistance. This may be related to adolescents' growing need for independence as well as to the increased complexity of the subject matter and the difficulty some parents may have in providing assistance. Students spoke of the types of assistance they do receive. A 17-year-old female in East City mentioned a dad who "writes for a living" and helps with her papers, and a 15-year-old African-American male at Hamilton spoke of the assistance his dad, an educator, had provided in math in earlier grades. Others spoke of general support from parents, as well as older siblings, with computers, math, and writing. In a number of cases, parental assistance and support was minimal or nonexistent.


Expectations about work around the house—"chores" that students are expected to perform—were generally moderate. When asked about a typical day, few students volunteered information about routine chores, but when asked specifically, most quickly generated a short list. This often included cleaning their own personal space, some minor help in the kitchen, other household tasks, and caring for younger siblings. As one mother reported about chores among the families she knew: "If they have chores, then they are very basic—picking up garbage, taking the dog for a walk, feeding the cat, making your bed, closing the blinds—not major chores like cleaning the windows." These chores were often distributed by gender, with girls more likely to report cooking and cleaning, and boys more likely to report cutting the grass and taking out garbage. Some families have structured systems, as evidenced in responses such as "this is my week to set the table;" in others, tasks are distributed in a more loosely defined manner.

The type and amount of chores differed from the norm in two settings: single-parent families and families of recent immigrants. Some high school students expressed a sense of responsibility to a single parent. One high school male commented that

I cook a lot. I cook all kinds of stuff. I experiment sometimes . . . . I take out the garbage, mop, vacuum, you know, just help keep the house clean while she works. You know, she pays the bills and all, so I try to help, do my part. You know, it's just me and my mom.

In families newly arrived in this country, family responsibilities extend well beyond expected chores. Often the first members of their family to learn the language of the new country, children may be thrust into adult roles, negotiating with landlords, doctors, and government agencies on behalf of their parents. A counselor at a high school with a large immigrant population spoke of the lost school time among students expected to shoulder these responsibilities, as students were regularly needed to accompany parents to appointments in the community.


Many students, in describing the rhythms of their days, mentioned time with parents and siblings. Although busy calendars seem to prevent many from arriving home till late, the family dinner still takes precedence in a number of homes, at least on certain nights of the week. As one parent of a junior high school son and high school daughter explained:

We try to have meals together as often as we can, somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. But I have a daughter in high school, and her schedule changes, and that kind of changes as to when we eat. But gathering together means kind of talking about the day as well.

In many cases it is the students' active lives that prevent regular dinner times, but parents also have other roles that interfere: "I'm on a lot of committees and stuff, so a lot of times I fix food ahead of time, and my 17-year-old can feed the youngest one if I'm not home," said one parent. Another student, an 11th-grader in West City who has sports practice for 2.5 hours daily said, "I always come home late. By that time they already ate. My other brother, he is older and he is going to the university, so he eats at different times. My mother and dad eat together." He also commented that the family did not spend much time together: "I think that we should spend more. Everyone is so busy, and when my parents come home from work, they are so tired."

Many younger adolescents described some regular routines with family on the weekends (e.g., "We always have pizza together on Friday night"). As another junior high student noted: "On the weekends . . . . I try to spend as much time with my family as possible, because my parents are at work a lot during the week." For those whose parents are separated or divorced, the weekend is often spent with the noncustodial parent or with other relatives. Many African-American and Hispanic students described regularly scheduled time with their extended family on weekends, frequently describing Sundays routinely spent at an aunt's or grandmother's. A 10th-grader at Uptown commented that "Every Sunday I go to my grandmother's house with my mother. The whole family is there, my aunts, uncles, everybody."

Leisure Time

Other casual leisure pursuits among adolescents include socializing with friends; physical activities, such as basketball, biking, and rollerblading; watching television, listening to music; and computer time. Television is omnipresent, with nearly all students mentioning it among their regular activities. Some described a routine of daily viewing, either immediately after school or after dinner, while some families reported regular television viewing during the family dinner. In some households, the television is a constant, left on throughout the evening, a problem noted particularly by students in small apartments or crowded homes, who must do homework in this environment. Others are regular viewers; one student commented: "On a good night I watch 3 or 4 hours a night [and he names each of the shows by night of the week]; on a bad night maybe 1 to 2 hours." Another stated that:

I mostly watch sports. I may watch a movie on the weekend, but usually during the week I don't have time to watch television, other than sports or sometimes a sitcom. My big television night is Friday. It's the end of the week and I like to unwind. (Tenth-grader, Hamilton)

A substantial number of students, however, described fairly disciplined habits that included restricting their viewing to one night of favorite shows or taping for later viewing. Even as early as the eighth grade a student reported that "I tape my shows because I am so paranoid about my time for studying." In some cases, these patterns are regulated by parents, who have set restricted days and hours for television viewing. As one junior high student described it:

I used to watch a lot of TV in grade school. Then my mom and I started talking about my junior high and high school and how I can't be doing that anymore, because we have tons of homework. I probably watch about an hour and a half during dinner. We might watch a show everybody likes.

A parent of an eighth-grade daughter described her family's approach to television:

TV is present in my home, and it tries to play more of a role than I care for it to, and they're not always monitored . . . . She tends not to be into watching educational programming, so it's always recreational entertainment. Usually we can't look at television until Thursday evening . . . . Depends on how well the rooms look and how much work you've gotten done, but generally we're striving to keep it limited.

Student descriptions of computer use, mentioned most frequently by early adolescent males, ranged from playing video games to browsing on the Internet to programming or "hacking." A number of students play musical instruments and must work both lesson and practice time into their week. Musical interests are eclectic, representing the range currently available to teenagers. Some students mentioned listening to rap, some to rock or alternative music, and a few to classical. Some were devoted to particular styles and some devoted simply to listening to music. As one high school junior said: "Music is a huge part of my life. I leave my stereo going 24 hours a day. It is probably going right now. There is always music."

Many regularly rent videos and some are attracted to a particular genre, such as horror films or comedy. Recreational reading was seldom mentioned. When students were asked about reading during their leisure time, they most often mentioned horror books, science fiction, fantasy, and comic books, along with adolescent magazines. One student said he read "movie books, like ones they made into a movie." A college-bound senior, asked about books and magazines, said:

Books—I read what is assigned in school. Books take a long time and you can read only a couple of pages at a time. They go too slow for me. I read Newsweek and parts of the paper . . . . Light stuff, not world news.

Recreational sports were most commonly mentioned as a leisure activity by males. In low-income areas, in particular, many described a daily routine that included local basketball with their friends. This activity also is of importance to some adolescents as a potential, however unlikely, career goal. A parent at a high school in an extremely low-income neighborhood commented that:

Basketball is what these kids like and grow up with. Not many kids love to do school work, but they love sports. The parents encourage them to be in sports, because they can make millions of dollars a year. It's a ticket out of here, out of the ghetto. And they have more faith in sports getting them out of the ghetto than academics.

Weekends seem to provide the least structured aspects of a students' week, with time to sleep late and to relax. Students also spoke of family time, religious services, and special academic programs attended on Saturdays. Leisure pursuits during the weekend most commonly include shopping, seeing movies, and socializing with friends. As one student described his weekend:

I go to baseball practice, then go home, relax there, then I might call my friends and see what they are doing. We might go to the park or go into town. Sometimes we might go to a movie. Sundays are my relaxing day. I don't do much of anything. I might go to the library and study or I might talk to someone on the phone. But Sunday is usually my day to catch up on homework that I didn't do, watch sports, sleep, and get ready for the week basically. (Tenth-grader, Hamilton)

A female described a similar pattern:

I used to be a part of this dance troupe, but now I am taking a break. I usually catch up on movie videos, catch up on homework, hang out with my friends at the mall, or just hang out at home. (As for Sundays), well, my mom used to be religious, but then she joined the health club and she has been there every Sunday morning, (so) that is her religion now . . . . I do on Sunday what I do on Saturday, except that I procrastinate really badly, and Sunday is my catch-up-on-homework day. (Ninth-grader, Hamilton)

Another, who spends most weekends with her grandmother, said:

On Sundays I eat a big breakfast and dinner. My grandmother loves to cook. We go to church together. I am in the choir there and a lot of my friends from elementary school go there. When I am with my mom, I sleep on Sunday. (Ninth-grade female, Uptown)

Social Lives

Unstructured leisure time is often spent with friends, sometimes just "hanging out." Often for girls, as well as for some boys, weekday social interaction outside of school involves talking on the telephone, reviewing and interpreting the day's events. Asked about how she spent her time after school, one 17-year-old high school female replied:

I spend most of my time on the phone. I would say at least 3 hours a day. I also have to do chores—do the dishes sometime, vacuum, not much. Mostly I just talk to my friends and this one guy who is almost my boyfriend. I also spend a lot of time with my best friend—we spend a lot of time together. We talk about what happened in school.

Boys spoke more of time spent "hanging out" with friends, though as students got older this often happened in mixed groups. There were widely differing standards about the amount of time that students spend in peer interaction outside school. For many, it is a routine part of after-school time, relaxing and talking with friends, perhaps playing sports together. However, among the more studious, weekday afternoons and evenings seemed devoted primarily to school-related activities, with the weekends providing time for social activities. Even as early as middle school, some reported how this had changed since their elementary years:

I like to talk with my friends at school, but I don't hang out with them as much as I used to after school. It always seems I can't find time for that, even though I'm still really good friends with them. (Student, King)

For high school students with heavy academic loads and several scheduled activities, there is even less time for socializing during the week. As one high school student, asked about his social life, described it:

It was a high priority earlier, but as I get more serious about what I want to do, I find that I don't have time, especially during the week. I may talk to a girl between classes, during lunch, before or after school. I might talk on the phone, but not much during the week. I do go out on the weekends. For some of my friends, though, it is a higher priority. (Tenth-grade male, Hamilton)

Some of these academically-oriented students described combining studying and social life. One student said, "During the week, if I want to hang out with my friends, I just go to the library with them." For others, particularly those less studious or less engaged in school, time with peers routinely occupies many of the hours after school, though how it was actually spent was ill defined. Among this group, some older students who have paired off are also likely to see each other regularly. One junior male commented that he usually saw his girlfriend for a few hours every day:

We don't talk on the phone much, because I just usually walk over and see her. We go out, the rest I can't say on tape. I usually see her after I get back from the park.

Parental control over time spent with friends varied, as did their expectations about what was appropriate. Some Hispanic families interviewed expressed the opinion that it was inappropriate to visit with school friends after school, and this seemed to be particularly enforced for daughters.

Discussions with students about their social lives made it clear that "dating" as it was known a generation ago is clearly passe´ in the communities studied. Adolescents appear more likely to spend time in-groups than in pairs. A mother of six summarized what many expressed in our interviews:

When I was young, the definition of dating was a date. You got called up and asked to go to one event. But that is not a date necessarily today. Today it is much more group oriented. (My daughter) might go out with one or two girl friends and then meet up with a group of boys, and in that group may be the boy that she is dating at the moment . . . . With the exception of dances and stuff like that, I have not had a lot of experience of my kids dating one person. With my daughters, I can count on one hand the number of times a boy has come to the front door to pick them up for a date. It is more groupie. (Mother, Springdale)

Students who do pair up are "going with" each other, a slippery term with evolving connotations as children age. Exclusive relationships certainly exist, but as one teacher said "Dating as something proprietorial is not as important. `This is the one and only' is much less pronounced." A ninth-grade female at Hamilton, asked about dating, said:

I am friends with a lot of guys, so I hang around with them. I am sort of interested, but I have time. For most of my friends it is medium to high (priority), for me I guess it is medium. I talk on the phone around 2 hours, about half talking to guys.

Weekend social life may include "partying," which often connotes the use of alcohol or drugs. One student gave the common lament that in his town "there is not a lot to do. You can drink if you drink, but I don't personally. So we just kind of hang out, we go someplace." Asked if that was typical, he responded, "No, most people drink and go to parties . . . . We are not into it yet." His comments, and those of others, seem to imply that partying and drinking is an expected activity during the upper years of high school. Middle school students also talked about "not partying yet." One group of junior and senior students at Springdale, asked how they spend weekends, described the changes over the course of his high school years.

Partying just began sophomore year and it is really in swing junior year. Freshman year, you do not have a lot of friends. Or you just do what you were used to doing in junior high. You do not have a car. Once you have a car, you can go out.

Asked to describe partying, another student in the group gave an example:

This weekend, Friday, I went to a friend's house with his own apartment. We go and hang out over there. We drink. Smoke pot. I do not drink much myself, but I smoke a lot of pot. (laughs) I am not into chemical drugs. (Eleventh-grade male, Springdale)

Parents were either less aware of these activities or chose not to discuss them, and teachers appeared to have limited information about students' social lives. One teacher noted that partying was no longer "the big trend it used to be" and thought that students "do things socially and do things in groups," but I think they are doing things with smaller groups. And I do not think that parties per se are one of the things, at least not one of the things I hear them talking about." (Math teacher, Springdale) A few teachers noted that partying and drug use seemed to have increased. Perhaps the scale of the activity has changed, but students themselves still reported that at least at large urban high schools, many students find that partying on weekends is an expected aspect of high school social life.


Part-time employment is commonplace for adolescents in the Untied States, with approximately 60 percent of high school sophomores and 75 percent of high school seniors engaged in paid employment (Bachman & Schulenberg 1993; Steinberg & Dornbusch 1991). Such employment serves both as a means to earn money and as a symbol of growing independence and quasi-adult status. As one first-year high school female said,

I don't have (a job) now, but I want one for the summer to learn responsibility and to see how it feels to make your own money. The money is not a big deal, because my parents usually give me money, but I think it's better if you earn it. It makes it more important.

Government regulations prohibit formal employment under 14 and restrict the working hours during the school week for those old enough to get a work permit. Accordingly, few of the middle and junior high school students interviewed had "real" jobs. But even 12- and 13-year-olds spoke of a variety of part-time jobs, such as babysitting, paper routes, and lawn mowing, that keep them in pocket change and seem to provide some sense of responsibility. During the high school years, many students have regular part-time employment either after school, on weekends, or both, and even more expect to work for pay during the summer when school is not in session. For example, a 15-year-old sophomore said he did not have a part-time job, because "My parents really stress education and they do not want me to get a job during the school year, because it will take away from the time I spend at school," but that he is "planning on getting a job this summer though. I have been babysitting since I was in fifth grade."

The primary reasons why those interviewed work is to earn spending money; to save toward a larger purchase, such as a car; or to begin to save for college expenses. The larger question is whether students are meeting real or perceived needs. Many students from upper-middle-class families hold part-time jobs, although it may not be an economic necessity to do so. As one teacher commented: "The wealthier kids work to gain money to buy things they want. Kids have what they think of as economic needs that would not have been considered a need when I was in school."

Many parents also seemed to support the value of working at a young age. The mother of an eighth-grader described her approach:

I expect her to baby sit for other people, to make her feel responsible for earning some money of her own . . . . But it is not really the money. I want her to have her own money, but also the structure. I know where she is going to be.

One mother at Springdale, whose youngest child was 15, said that all her children had worked at some point during high school, though it might not have been financially necessary:

I think that it is a big thing for American teenagers, to have something that you are doing, that you are going to get some money. You may be doing it for a specific goal, to buy a car, to go to college. But it might also be just to have money in your pocket every day . . . . My kids have worked because they want to have that feeling of independence. (They) want to go out and have pizza or buy a new pair of shoes and not have to ask mom.

Working after school also has symbolic value. The same mother continued:

My two girls, they both (got) part-time jobs because they thought it was the neat thing to do. And it also gives the kids responsibility and a feeling of being grown up. They want to get a little extra money in their pockets, but also all their friends have jobs . . . . You are almost a little bit out of it if you do not have a part-time job . . . . I think that kids learn an awful lot from part-time jobs."

She added that her son had been small for his age until fairly recently, but that he "had a part-time job, which made him feel very grown up . . . . It wasn't the money, it was `Here is responsibility. We think you can handle this.' And that is still a big deal for him."

Most adolescents' jobs were primarily in service roles and retail sales. Students we interviewed described their jobs in food service, movie theaters, day care, retirement homes, clothing shops, and food stores. Those in offices or in more professional environments often described these as positions in the family business or in positions arranged by their parents. It is not uncommon for students to work sporadically, moving from job to job. In most urban areas, at the time this study was done, entry-level positions at minimum wage were so readily available that students were able to work for a few months, quit when school demands took precedence, then begin the cycle again a few months later.

Not all students work while attending school. Not all students want to work, nor are all those who want a job successful at gaining employment, in spite of the availability of entry-level service positions. Some of the most academically engaged students from families in the upper-income brackets do not work during the school year, and some with high level of involvement in sports work only sporadically, if at all. The other group that appeared least likely to be employed among those interviewed were minority students in the poorest neighborhoods, some of whom despaired at discrimination and their perceived unemployability. A parent volunteer in a vocational school noted:

I talk to a lot of kids who want a job, but who can't get one. If a kid's pants are baggy or he has an earring in his nose they won't hire that kid, because of the way that you look. Your appearance makes a big difference. And the kids know that. Like my son, I took him to a place once and it was him and a white guy and they told my son that they would call him, but they hired the white guy on the spot. My son saw it and it took a lot out of him. When stuff like that happens, it makes the kids think that they can't make it out there in the world. That's the reason that a lot of them turn to selling drugs. They feel that they can't make it out there.

For those who are employed, balancing part-time jobs with schoolwork may teach skills in managing time, a desirable goal according to both parents and teachers. A parent of three, two now in college, remarked that:

Well for my daughter it seemed like she was managing her time. I think it helped her managing time and prepared her to be more responsible, so that she knew she had time for work, time for sports, time for recreation.

Similarly, an honor roll student, who worked part time in a flower shop during his senior year in high school, was asked if this interfered with his studies. He replied:

No, because I've done more work than that. When I was a junior I played water polo. I'd go to practice in the morning, then go to school, then go to work. It just depends on how badly you want to do all these things. I wouldn't advise everyone to do this, because it was really hard. I'm not doing a sport right now, so I want to get a second job. I feel like I have too much time on my hands and I need money for college.

Other students spoke similarly of the need to have something to do and of becoming more organized in the process. Such students are efficiency experts concerning time:

I've got an advantage with my job, where I can go and I can work on my homework, and when someone comes into the store I can help them, and when they leave and it is slow again, I can work on my homework. I have two study halls also during the week, and I use those to do my homework. (Eleventh-grader, Springdale)

Many students seemed to view time as something that must be filled up, booked, and scheduled; unstructured leisure time appeared to be rare.


[The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 1 of 4)] [Table of Contents] [The Role of School in United States Adolescents' Lives (Part 3 of 4)]