Service learning promotes good deeds and academic achievement, but its greater potential lies in preparing students to be engaged citizens.
What's the Idea?
Typically embodied in classroom-based projects, service learning aims to link community service with the school curriculum to enhance both character development and academic skills. Service learning can also go beyond these goals to prepare students to become engaged citizens, by expanding their understanding of social problems and the role of civic action in solutions to these problems.
What's the Reality?
Roughly one-quarter of all schools engage at least some of their students in service learning projects. Although this represents a decline from almost one-third of all schools in 1999, it still represents a sizable number of schools and, correspondingly, a broad range of purposes. Only some of these purposes focus on civic engagement (Spring, Grimm, & Dietz, 2008).
Service learning projects cut across all subject areas and grade levels. Some activities are tightly connected to the curriculum—for example, tracking levels of pollutants in a local stream for science class. Others may have only a tangential connection to schoolwork—for example, entertaining at a nursing home. Most service learning programs shy away from political activities and stick to activities viewed as worthwhile in themselves, such as tutoring younger students.
Projects with civic engagement goals expose students to social problems and to public agencies responsible for the amelioration of these problems. For example, instead of organizing a food drive as an end in itself—a traditional form of community service—students might use this activity as a springboard to research and discuss how effectively government agencies at various levels respond to hunger. Older students might decide to lobby lawmakers to create policies that better meet the needs of those who go hungry.
What's the Research?
Several studies in the last decade have addressed the role that service learning can play in increasing students' commitment to civic participation. The strongest effects have generally been found for service learning programs that have the explicit aim of developing active citizenship, in contrast with those that emphasize community service and character building.
Kahne and Westheimer (2003) used surveys, observations, interviews, and student work to study 10 such programs. In one project, some students spent a semester investigating whether residents in their neighborhood wanted curbside recycling, and others helped develop a five-year plan for the fire and rescue department. All the students collected data from citizens and government agency staff and presented their findings to their county board of supervisors. The researchers found that, compared with a control group, participating students made significantly larger gains in developing such civic skills as vision and community engagement.
In a national evaluation of federally funded Learn and Serve projects, Melchoir (1998) found that well-designed and well-implemented school-based projects improved students' civic attitudes and school performance. Weiler, LaGoy, Crane, and Rovner (1998) described similar findings in their evaluation of elementary and secondary service learning programs in California. Students reported increased interest in schoolwork, greater understanding of the curriculum, and a greater sense of civic responsibility. Both studies, however, reported that the positive effects faded after students were no longer involved in the projects.
Comparing 1,000 high school students in service learning programs with similar students who did not participate, Billig, Root, and Jesse (2005) concluded that programs that lasted a full semester and were led by teachers with experience in service learning produced the largest benefits. They also found that students who engaged in political or civic action scored higher on measures of civic dispositions and knowledge than did those who provided direct service (such as tutoring) or indirect service (such as fund-raising).
For example, in advance of a mayoral election, a group of students interviewed community members about their concerns and organized a public forum in which questions based on these concerns were posed to all candidates. Later, students collectively evaluated the candidates' responses. In another case, students developed a proposal for a rapid transit system and presented it to state officials.
Kahne & Sporte (2008) analyzed surveys completed by more than 4,000 high school students in Chicago. They concluded that when students had classroom learning opportunities specifically designed to engage them in identifying and discussing social problems, including controversies surrounding potential solutions, their commitment to civic participation increased. The researchers also found that these opportunities are more often found in classrooms with high-income, high-performing students than in those with predominantly low-income and low-performing students.
Taking a slightly different tack, to learn what kinds of activities were associated with long-term political participation, McFarland and Thomas (2006) analyzed two national data sets that followed students from middle and high school through early adulthood. They found that activities requiring time commitments and involving service, political activity, and public performance—such as service clubs, student councils, and musical groups—have the most significant influence on long-term political participation, regardless of students' backgrounds.
Most studies emphasize the importance of giving students a voice in defining or selecting projects and in subsequent reflection and discussion (for example, Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005). Yet some research has also found that mandated community service can also increase civic engagement, if the activities actively engage youngsters in addressing social problems (Hart, Youniss, & Atkins, 2007).
A recurring theme cuts across all the studies: Service learning projects can influence both short-term and long-term attitudes and actions regarding civic participation when the projects are carefully designed and implemented. Explicit learning goals, committed and well-trained teachers, opportunities to debate important social issues, effective coordination with community agencies, and dedicated time in the curriculum are hallmarks of effective service learning projects.
What's One to Do?
To turn service learning projects into meaningful opportunities to learn about democracy and civic participation, teachers need access both to training and to worthwhile service opportunities for their students. And they need encouragement from school and district leaders to tackle real-world problems and controversial issues. Every community faces significant issues that don't have simple solutions, from conserving water to providing adequate support for the elderly, and even changing school policies. Bringing these issues into the classroom motivates students to grapple with tough challenges.
Reading about democracy and how government works are poor substitutes for active participation in civic decision making. At its best, service learning can provide opportunities for this kind of participation.
Billig, S., Root, S., & Jesse, D. (2005). The impact of participation in service-learning on high school students' civic engagement. Denver, CO: RMC Research.
Hart, D., Youniss, J., & Atkins, R. (2007). High school community service as a predictor of adult voting and volunteering.
American Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 197–219.
Kahne, J. E., & Sporte, S. E. (2008). Developing citizens: The impact of civic learning opportunities on students' commitment to civic participation. American Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 738–766.
Kahne, J., & Westheimer, J. (2003). Teaching democracy: What schools need to do. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(1), 34–40, 57–66.
McFarland, D. A., & Thomas, R. J. (2006). Bowling young: How youth voluntary associations influence adult political participation. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 401–425.
Melchoir, A. (1998). Final report: National evaluation of Learn and Serve America and community-based programs. Waltham, MA: Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University.
Spring, K., Grimm, R., Jr., & Dietz, N. (2008). Community service and service-learning in America's schools. Washington, DC: Corporation for National and Community Service.
Weiler, D., LaGoy, A., Crane, E., & Rovner, A. (1998). An evaluation of K–12 service learning in California: Phase II final report. Emeryville, CA: RPP International.
Jane L. David is Director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reform (Education Week Press, 2006).
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