Given the economic disadvantage that one-earner families face relative to two-earner families, a traditional family often faces pressure to have the mother join the paid labor force once the children head off to school, when the mothers' duties in the home are presumably reduced, or perhaps when the children reach high school. Yet a new study by Charles L. Baum of Middle Tennessee State University warns that maternal employment during the child's adolescent years significantly reduces academic grades for both boys and girls.
Baum uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which has, since 1994, been collecting information biannually of the children (ages 15 to 20) of mothers who have been interviewed annually by the survey. His 1998 sample included 1,198 children who had been born between 1978 and 1983, 40 percent of whom had been born to a teenage mother. The children in the sample are disproportionately black and Hispanic.
While his initial model positively correlated high school grades with maternal employment (although without statistical significance), his second model separated maternal employment in the early childhood years, the preadolescent years, and the adolescent years. While maternal employment remained positively related to grades in the first two age categories, adolescent maternal employment yielded a small, but negative effect on grades. A third model, using multivariate regression analysis that controlled for differences not caused by maternal employment, found adolescent maternal employment yielding a statistically significant negative effect on grades.
Moreover, when controls for background characteristics were added, the positive associations found in Models 1 and 2 were actually reversed. That is, maternal employment became substantially more negative when the mother's education and scores on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test were controlled. "Thus, failure to control for the mother's education levels results in maternal employment spuriously appearing to enhance grades."
As his sample was disproportionately low-income, Baum tested the data with models that controlled for family income and discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, the effect of maternal employment on high school grades was not less detrimental in families where the mother's earnings represent a larger portion of family income - including single parents families - or more negative in higher income families. He concludes, "These results would suggest that the total effect of maternal employment ... is more negative than previously reported."
The robustness of these findings suggest that if policy makers really care about leaving no high school student behind, they would be wise to think more about how to encourage mothers to stay at home and less about processing bureaucratic red tape from Washington that presumably holds local schools accountable.