Service-Learning Sits in School

In the only state that makes every youth perform “service” in order to graduate from high school, the concept of service has undergone a significant evolution.

Sorry, kids: No more credit for babysitting your niece. Keeping score for the baseball team might not count, either.

Community service – like coaching exercise classes for disabled kids – is okay, but most Maryland youth do most of their service in school or as part of school projects. They grow wild celery in class or gather supplies for homeless shelters.

That’s because in Maryland, like much of the country, the youth “community service” movement has been eclipsed by “service-learning.” And the objective to get teens to volunteer in community-based organizations has been largely replaced by projects that come under the school curriculum.

As the service-learning phenomenon spreads nationwide, these shifts in Maryland are instructive, for they raise fundamental questions about what service-learning is and what it achieves.

In 1999, 64 percent of public schools and 83 percent of all high schools organized some form of community service for students, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey. More than 46 percent of all high schools offered service-learning courses, up from 9 percent in 1984. Service-learning requirements for graduation have taken root in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Washington.

A sure sign that the movement is here to stay for the foreseeable future is the growing amount of money being spent on it. An entire industry of service-learning-oriented nonprofits has sprung up, and President George Bush is heavily pushing the service concept, even planning to create a USA Freedom Corps (for which he’s requested $560 million in 2003). The Corporation for National and Community Service spends $43 million on Learn and Serve America initiatives around the country, which include service-learning. And since 1998 the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s $13 million Learn in Deed initiative has funded service-learning demonstration projects in five states.

What does all this buy? Early research indicates benefits such as boosting youths’ attitudes about serving their communities, reducing risky behaviors and producing higher grades and test scores. (See sidebar.) But some supporters say much of the movement has veered off course, substituting simple charity or classroom instruction for meaningful service with lasting lessons about responsible citizenship.

“It is a strategy with a great deal of potential, but it is a potential that is not always realized,” says Joseph Kahne, who teaches educational leadership at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and studies service-learning.

Ask Not What …

Service-learning’s intellectual roots go back to the early 20th century works of psychologist William James and John Dewey, who believed in the importance of learning through varied activities, not just formal courses. But defining service-learning remains difficult, except by example. Proponents describe it as a teaching philosophy that links classroom lessons to projects that address community problems. These proponents – sometimes passionate to the point of religious zeal – cite a Chinese proverb to explain how it’s supposed to work: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Nice, but it didn’t exactly fire up the country. What got service-learning moving was the self-centered 1980s – when civic leaders around the country increasingly implored citizens to do more volunteer work, lamenting that youth in particular were disengaged from school and community life or overly influenced by “Me Decade” values. Maryland School Superintendent David Hornbeck even pressed for a service requirement for students, but the idea didn’t take off until he left office in 1988. That’s when the State Department of Education and a group of educators formed the Maryland Student Service Alliance (MSSA) to promote student service.

Considering President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural line, “Ask not what your country can do for you …,” it’s no surprise that a Kennedy played a crucial role.

MSSA’s first executive director – and the strongest voice for the service requirement – was Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy (and candidate this month for governor of Maryland). “Think of this as a lab for citizenship,” Townsend said as she and the state education department pushed the mandatory service idea into the early 1990s.

But many people said the experiment couldn’t work. The state teachers’ union and 22 of state’s 24 county school systems opposed the idea, mostly because it was an unfunded mandate at a time when schools were pressed to produce better academic results. A spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association called it “a feel-good program for politicians.”
School administrators saw management nightmares in keeping track of students’ hours of service. Some doubted there were enough local agencies to engage all those youth in volunteer work. Rural counties wondered how kids would get to and from volunteer sites.

Even some strong service-learning supporters are skeptical of statewide service requirements. Says Jim Kielsmeier, founder and president of the National Youth Leadership Council, “I don’t like unfunded mandates on the backs of people who don’t have much clout – namely, kids.”

Service requirements were being adopted – and taking heat – in individual schools and districts elsewhere. The Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C., public interest law firm, went to court in the 1990s on behalf of students in Bethlehem, Pa., Mamaroneck, N.Y, and Chapel Hill, N.C., charging that service requirements amounted to “involuntary servitude.” The courts ruled in favor of the schools.

The Maryland education department’s service requirement kicked in in 1993.

Immediately, observers raised questions about what the kids did in the name of service-learning.

Get It Over With

With the concept so difficult to define, it is no surprise that pinpointing what counts as service is a common problem wherever service is required. Kahne and Joel Westheimer – a University of Ottawa professor who has also extensively studied service-learning – cite cases in which youths earned credit for taking attendance in class, and for working for banks and fast food restaurants, essentially providing free labor to businesses. While many Maryland youths volunteer at community-based agencies like the YMCA, some have gotten service credit for writing for the yearbook and keeping the baseball team’s score book.

James Youniss, a psychology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., studied the Maryland effort and co-authored a pointed critique in a 1998 Washington Post op-ed. Maryland students were “meeting the letter, but not the spirit, of the law” in their efforts “to get the task over with as quickly and painlessly as possible,” he wrote.

He found youths getting credit “for ordinary extracurricular tasks such as organizing a school dance or everyday kindnesses such as babysitting an older sister’s infant. … Some administrators had to devise last-minute, makeshift projects, such as cleaning the campus grounds, filing school records and shelving library books.”

The Maryland program lacked a clear goal. “We couldn’t pin down what they thought they were doing,” Youniss says.

“There was no model for what we were tying to do,” says Luke Frazier, MSSA’s executive director since 1995. “We were building the airplane while we were flying it, and at times, we didn’t know what we were doing.”

But pushing youth toward more meaningful activities proved troublesome as well. Right from the start, conservative critics sensed a liberal slant in the activities that youth were encouraged to undertake. They cited one early MSSA description of service that included “making a difference through actions of citizenship, by participating in advocacy projects to assist the disenfranchised or to correct an injustice through petitioning, making presentations, conducting surveys and presenting results.”

Such civic activism is essential to meaningful service-learning, Kahne and Westheimer say – and politically dangerous.

“If you’re thinking in meaningful ways about what needs are there in society and what ways that you can collectively act on them, that’s a civics lesson,” Kahne says. “If you say we’re going to measure the level of pollution [in a river] but we’re not going to ask how it got polluted, what are the ways we could” alleviate that pollution, “you’re not getting a civics lesson. You’re getting a science lesson.”

But the line between civic and political activism can be pencil-thin: What if a youth seeks to improve the environment by volunteering with a clearly liberal environmental group or lawmaker? In June 2000 it was reported that two Maryland seniors logged service hours by working at the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, where the youths spoke out for “reasonable, compassionate alternatives” to the nation’s marijuana policies.

Afraid of losing their broad political support, service-learning administrators often favor activities that seem like little more than grade-school-level charity.

On top of such debates is the fact that no one wants high school seniors to be held back because they didn’t spend enough time picking up litter around the school. But in 1997 – when for the first time a class of Maryland seniors had to complete 75 service hours to graduate – 49 of the state’s 45,000 seniors didn’t get their diplomas because they failed to meet the service-learning requirement. Maryland had to put more effort into making sure that students earned enough hours.

As a result of all of this, the Maryland program evolved, county by county, into service-learning, which is theoretically quite different from just encouraging volunteerism.


As they built their service programs, Maryland’s county-based school districts saw that just putting in hours wasn’t enough. They all followed a model called PARE, for “preparation, action, and reflection” (with “evaluation” sometimes added), which would take the service requirement beyond mere volunteering.

“Lots of places may claim they are involved in service-learning – they say they collect canned goods at Thanksgiving,” says Joan Shine, founding director of the former National Center for Service Learning in Early Adolescence at City University of New York. “But unless you surround the activity with learning about the problem and why it occurs, it’s just a charitable activity.

“If you collect canned goods in connection with a discussion of the causes of poverty, that can turn into service-learning.”
And where would those discussions take place? In Maryland, they occur in school – reflecting one of the movement’s biggest shifts.

“One of the goals a lot of people had started was getting kids out of the school and into the community to bridge the outside world with the inside world,” Westheimer says. “If what you’re talking about is making school relevant to the social world, I could see that there are certain things you could do in the classroom.”

Now the key word is “infusion” – service-learning blended with or embedded in regular course work or school projects. In Montgomery County, a wealthy suburban county just north of Washington, students get service-learning hours for work they do in some English, science and social studies courses. They also get credit for such activities as working on environmental projects in school, performing in school musicals and tutoring at school.

In fact, in most Maryland districts, all the service-learning hours are “infused” into school-based activities. Middle school students gather food, first aid and cleaning supplies for a local homeless shelter. A high school English class used readings like The Miracle Worker to inspire a project on tolerance, including a picnic and field trips with disabled students.

Infusion is now at the heart of service-learning around the country. But some service- learning proponents say real service-learning can’t occur totally within the school. In San Francisco, for instance, language arts students at Horace Mann Academic Middle School documented the history of the Mission District and portrayed it in a mural in the community. In Chicago, “We’re really encouraging people to get out into the community, working at a community organization or designing a project that impacts their community in some way,” says Jon Schmidt, the city school district’s manager of service-learning.

In Maryland, which Chicago used as a model for its program, only two counties require students to log hours of service outside the school system. In Montgomery County, youth can work at more than 250 agencies, including the YMCA and the Silver Spring Youth Advisory Committee.

At a project called KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now), students do one-on-one coaching with physically and mentally disabled youth. Students can also get credit, according to the school district’s website, for working on political campaigns (with parental approval) and “hugging at Special Olympics events.”

They must write five- to seven-sentence “reflection statements” about their outside work.

It’s difficult to tell, however, if the service-learning requirement has boosted youth volunteer work at community-based organizations (CBOs). Some youth volunteer beyond the required hours, either because they enjoy the activities or they’re aiming for the certificate of meritorious service given to graduating seniors who log more than 260 hours.

At the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County, Md., Executive Director Don Mathis says he has 80 to 100 teenage volunteers, who often work with younger kids. “It’s a great help,” Mathis says of the service-learning program. “We’d miss it if we didn’t have it.”

But hold on: Harford students can complete their entire requirement in school, and school officials say they do not track students’ volunteer hours at outside agencies. So if the kids are volunteering at the club, they’re probably doing it on their own.

One casualty of the evolution of service in Maryland has been the very phrase “community service.” The use of community service in court sentencing led to a joke among Maryland teens: “Where are two places you get out of with community service?
High school and jail.”

“ ‘Community service’ has connotations of someone who has been in trouble,” Frazier says.

Speaking of trouble, the board of education says that each year only two or three seniors fail to graduate because they didn’t log enough service hours.

Others Follow, To a Point

Maryland’s experience is influencing service-learning in other parts of the country – even if the average citizen still doesn’t know what service-learning is or how it differs from standard volunteerism. For example:

• Chicago school administrators visited Maryland and “borrowed” language from its guidelines before instituting their 4-year-old service requirement. “We’re trying to make a transformation from volunteer service to service-learning,” says Schmidt, the service-learning manager.

• California has set a goal to offer students service-learning or community-service experience in every grade. Fifty-eight of the state’s 1,003 school districts require service for high school graduation.

• Minnesota’s Department of Children, Families and Learning has instituted a “peer consultant” program to provide free technical assistance to any school district seeking to strengthen service-learning programs.

• Oregon state law requires the state Department of Education to provide service-learning curriculum materials and technical assistance to schools.

A 2001 survey by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States found that seven states permit community service or service-learning to be applied toward high school graduation requirements, and 10 others encourage service-learning as a mechanism for increasing student achievement and engagement. Twenty-three states have no policies on service-learning.

The commission also manages Kellogg’s policy and practice demonstration projects in California, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and South Carolina, which are designed to encourage the infusion of service-learning in K-12 curriculums. In Oregon, for example, the project goal is to make service-learning part of the “core experience” at 15 schools by boosting teacher training and connecting local programs to outside resources and agencies.

Such training addresses a key challenge: As local administrators in Maryland warn, there’s no sure way to monitor the quality of service-learning in classrooms. “There’s not someone standing over these teachers to see if they’re doing a good job,” says Max White, supervisor of work-study and service-learning programs in Frederick County, Md. “We have to trust they’re doing what they’re supposed to do.”

The MSSA runs teacher training and support services for service-learning. It gets about $240,000 of its $1 million budget from the state, plus $650,000 in grants from the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Yet in no other state besides Maryland has a legislature or education department liked the idea well enough to mandate service-learning statewide. And it remains to be seen how well service-learning programs survive amid the growing emphasis on academic achievement.

It is far enough entrenched for Townsend – Maryland’s lieutenant governor and the Democratic candidate for governor in this month’s election – to cite the service requirement among her major accomplishments.

Jim Myers can be reached


Luke Frazier, Executive Director
Maryland Student Service Alliance
State Department of Education
200 West Baltimore St.
Baltimore, MD 21201 (410) 767-0356

National Service Learning Clearinghouse
ETR Associates
4 Carbonero Way
Scotts Valley, CA 95066
(866) 245-7378

The Corporation for National and
Community Service
1201 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20525
(202) 606-5000

Jim Kielsmeier, CEO
National Youth Leadership Council
1667 Snelling Ave. North
St. Paul, MN 55108
(651) 631-3672

Pam Meador, Service Learning Specialist
Montgomery County Public Schools
850 Hungerford Dr., Room 207
Rockville, MD 20850
(301) 279-3454

What’s the Impact?

Earlier this year, a report (“Learning in Deed”) by the National Commission on Service-Learning, chaired by former Sen. John Glenn of Ohio and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, cited a growing body of research indicating that well-designed service-learning not only engages youth in their communities, but leads them to be more engaged in their other classes as well.

“Overall, there are positive impacts on kids’ commitment to do well – and impacts on math and science grades, even when there is not direct connection with the content of the service-learning,” says Alan Melchior, deputy director of the Center for Youth in Communities at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Various studies have reported that service-learning programs can help to:

• Increase youths’ awareness of community needs and their belief that they can make a difference in the world.

• Increase grades, attendance and positive attitudes toward school.

• Decrease risky behaviors that lead to pregnancy, disciplinary measures and arrest.

• Increase the number of students who consider responsibility an important value.

In some cases, the gains are slight. Melchior says some results must be confirmed by more than one study.

Other service-learning proponents point out that the studies seem to indicate that time spent in service-learning is not effort lost from other subjects – one of the most common questions raised about service-learning.

But service-learning pioneer Joan Shine, founding director of the former National Center for Service Learning in Early Adolescence at City University of New York, wants to see service-learning justified in its own terms, not through test scores on academic subjects.

“The real value of service-learning is in preparation for citizenship,” she says. “I’m not happy that service-learning must be linked to improved test scores in the traditional disciplines.”

The most relevant test of service-learning, Shine suggests, would measure “citizen participation 10 years after the students got out of school.”

Federal Funding

The federal commitment to service-learning may soon grow.

The Learn and Serve budget within the Corporation for National and Community Service has been $43 million since 1996. CNS says grants for that program reached 1.5 million youth this year.

The Citizen Service Act of 2002 (HR 4854) would increase funding for service-learning, starting at $55 million for fiscal year 2003 and growing to $65 million in 2006.

A new formula would decrease the amount of the total fund pool destined for K-12 programs from 62.5 percent to 50 percent, while increasing the amount destined to community-based organizations from 12.5 percent to 25 percent. Observers say the changes reflect the administration’s desire to aid faith-based institutions.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush this year, encourages service-learning projects that involve tutoring and mentoring, and allows for use of 21st Century Community Learning Center funds for service-learning that “increases students’ sense of individual responsibility” for safe, healthy neighborhoods.


Youth Today is the only independent, internationally distributed digital media publication that is read by thousands of professionals in the youth service field.

Youth Today adheres to high-quality journalistic standards, providing readers with professional news coverage dedicated to examining a wide spectrum of complex issues in the youth services industry from legislation to community-based youth work.


Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue.


We are committed to transparency in every aspect of funding our organization. Donors may be quoted, mentioned or featured in our stories. Our news judgments are made independently – not based on or influenced by donors. Accepting financial support does not mean we endorse donors or their products, services or opinions…(read more)

Recent Comments




Kennesaw State University Mountain Logo & Ceneter for Sustainable Journalism Logo
LOGO Institute for Nonprofit News 3 turquoise boxes stacked in "J" shape

Copyright © 2018 Youth Today and MVP Themes --- Published by Center for Sustainable Journalism,
Kennesaw State University, 1200 Chastain Blvd. Suite 310, Kennesaw GA 30144

To Top