Youth volunteerism is being celebrated around the country in commemoration of National Service Day this month, but Andrew Furco recalls the resistance that greeted one type of service – service-learning – when it began more than 20 years ago.
“We couldn’t get it into the schools,” the researcher recalls. “Teachers were saying, ‘I can’t do service – I’m teaching math! What does this have to do with math?’ ”
So service-learning advocates framed the idea as a curriculum strategy to improve academic outcomes.
Today, however, service-learning advocates are trying to put more focus on the nonacademic impact. That’s because the academic effects, while promising, are not uniformly strong. More consistent, researchers say, is the impact on youth development skills and behaviors.
“For so long, we tried to prove that service-learning had an impact on academic outcomes … like standardized test scores,” says Furco, director of the Service-Learning Research and Development Center at the University of California/Berkeley. “We put all our eggs in that basket.”
“Where we see the most consistent findings are in the personal/social domain,” he says. “That’s where we need to put our investment.”
Just last month, the National Youth Leadership Council released a report on “The Impact of Service-Learning on Transitions to Adulthood.” That’s the latest example of how recent research has begun to look beyond academic achievement and civic awareness to more broad youth development outcomes.
Ups and Downs
There has been lots of discussion about what constitutes service-learning. The National Commission on Service-Learning, in a 2001 report called “Learning in Deed,” defined service-learning as a method of teaching that: combines community service with curriculum-based learning that is linked to academic content; responds to community needs; incorporates youth decision-making; and includes analytic reflection by youth on the connection between service and learning.
An example would be an ecology course in which students monitor the health of a local stream, report their findings to an environmental group, attend a zoning hearing that could affect the future of the stream, and document their thoughts, actions and impact.
By the early 1990s, the public education system, the federal government, foundations and the nonprofit sector began implementing service-learning with gusto in schools and communities. (See “Service-Learning Sits in School,” November 2002.) In 1994, the Learn and Serve America program under the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) was budgeted at $43 million for such efforts. By 1999, more than 46 percent of U.S. high schools offered service-learning, up from 9 percent in 1984.
But Learn and Serve’s budget dipped to $37 million in 2006, and President Bush has proposed cutting it to $34 million next year.
Perhaps in part to renew the federal government’s interest in service-learning, foundations, academicians and practitioners are increasingly asking, “Just what can service-learning do?”
The results have been mixed. In 1999, the “National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America School- and Community-Based Programs” found statistically significant impacts on school engagement and math grades among middle and high school Learn and Serve participants, but no impacts on English or social studies grades, course failures, absenteeism, homework hours or educational aspirations.
On the other hand, studies in California and Michigan did show impacts on achievement and standardized test scores, homework completion and grade-point averages. Studies in Florida and Texas showed higher attendance rates at schools that have service-learning programs. One of several reports from a three-year national study by RMC Research Corp., “The Impact of Participation in Service-Learning on High School Students’ Civic Engagement,” found that service-learning students scored higher on measurements of their enjoyment of school. More than one-third felt they had gained reading, writing and computer skills through service-learning, and one-quarter believed they had gained math and tutoring skills.
The inconsistency of demonstrated educational impacts “makes it difficult to conclude that service-learning is having a strong positive impact on students’ educational experience,” says Alan Melchior, project director of the Learn and Serve evaluation and deputy director of the Center for Youth and Community at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He added, however, that it was likely that “service-learning is helping students to become more engaged in school and that, perhaps as a result, they are doing better in at least some of their classes.”
A report released last year by CNCS, “Building Active Citizens,” found that youth who participated in high-quality school-based service-learning were more likely to say they felt a sense of empowerment within their communities, to have an interest in world events and to plan to volunteer in the future. Likewise, the RMC study found that service-learning participants were significantly more likely to report an intention to vote and had higher rates of attachment to their communities.
At the annual National Service-Learning Conference in March, a second CNCS report, “Educating for Active Citizenship,” found that youth who have participated in high-quality service-learning are more likely than others to say they will volunteer in the coming year, feel they can make a difference in their communities, take interest in world events, and talk about politics with adults or friends.
Furco says many studies show that service-learning’s benefits extend to areas traditionally targeted in youth development programs, including self-efficacy (“I know how to do something”), self-esteem (“I feel good about myself”), empowerment (“I can make change happen”), motivation (“I’m excited about learning”) and engagement (“I have strong ties to others and to society”).
“Those are what we call mediating factors for academic achievement,” Furco says. “Those things will naturally lead to higher achievement.”
Additionally, the RMC study showed that service-learning participants tend to have more adult role models, expand their career aspirations and acquire some of the protective factors discussed in resiliency literature.
The newest contribution from this line of research is the study released last month by the National Youth Leadership Council about service-learning’s impact on transitions to adulthood. Based on a nationally representative survey of more than 3,100 youth (ages 18 to 28) with no service, service-only or service-learning experiences, the study concluded that service-learning helps youth reach three essential outcomes: completion of high school and post-secondary education, development of skills and abilities that are employable, and development of physical and mental health.
The study also found that youth who participate in service-learning are more likely than their peers to socialize with someone of another racial or ethnic group, express their opinions, take classes to learn new skills and plan to obtain a master’s degree. Service-learning participants reported being more satisfied with their work, school, social and family lives, and more satisfied with their lives overall.
And that, after all, might be the whole point.
Contact: National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (866) 245-7378, www.servicelearning.org; National Service-Learning Partnership (212) 367-4614, www.service-learningpartnership.org;
National Youth Leadership Council (651) 631-3672, www.nylc.org.