why service learning policy is stuck

Service-learning (the intentional combination of community service with academic study) is a pretty significant phenomenon. According to CIRCLE’s fact sheet, “As of February 2004, over 10 percent of all K-12 public school students and 28 percent of all K-12 public institutions are involved in some type of service-learning, affecting approximately 4.7 million K-12 students in 23,000 public schools.” Yet the number of students who participate seems to have reached a plateau, and federal support (through the Learn & Serve America program) has declined.

At last weekend’s conference, the question was raised: Given the large quantity of research on service-learning, why hasn’t policy improved? In short, why doesn’t the research affect policy? Many of my colleagues felt that the problem lay with jargon-filled, overly complex research that isn’t translated or disseminated effectively.

That could be, but I have another explanation. Learn & Serve America supports an opportunity for schools and kids (i.e., service-learning) by funding it. That is a classic approach to educational policy, but it is not the dominant approach in our decade. The No Child Left Behind Act (which is just a name for the whole Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provides, mandates, supports, or authorizes very few opportunities at all. Instead, it defines outcomes and offers financial support (albeit, too little) for schools that reach those outcomes. (More on this distinction here.)

The reason for focus on outcomes is a profound lack of trust for schools. Conservatives distrust public schools because they are state monopolies, and unionized to boot. But it is equally important that many liberals distrust schools for being corrupt, reactionary, and discriminatory. I have been harangued by liberals and civil rights activists who completely support the structure of No Child Left Behind (which, indeed, was drafted by liberals). They believe that if you give money to schools to provide opportunities, the money will be wasted or channeled to privileged kids, and the opportunities themselves will be distorted beyond recognition. Their strategy is to hold schools accountable for core outcomes, focusing especially on kids who are likely to suffer discrimination. They are happy to let schools choose their methods. If service-learning actually enhances student performance, fine. But they will not directly support service-learning or any other opportunity through federal policy.

Very little of the existing research on service-learning is relevant to this situation, which is why (I believe ) it has so little impact on policy. To make a difference, the research would have to:

a) Show that mandates or funding for service-learning on a large scale actually make a positive difference in typical and struggling schools (not merely in excellent “boutique” schools). Recent research by Davila and Mora and by Kahne and Sporte do find such positive effects.

b) Show that the strategy of No Child Left Behind is flawed for its advertised purposes (raising student performance and equity). Or …

c) Figure out how to make schools, which are so deeply distrusted, more trustworthy by actually reforming them.

[update, June 20: The Senate appropriations subcommittee seems to have approved a 5.4% increase in Learn & Serve America, by a voice vote. If that change survives, it will be the first increase for a long time.]

3 thoughts on “why service learning policy is stuck

  1. Doyle

    I appreciate your focus upon the policy aspect of service learning. Its lack of policy presence so far probably has a great number of aspects. Part of the research challenge entails the fact that service learning experiences are so diverse and local. It certainly complicates the ‘gold-standard’ experimental research approach formally endorsed by NCLB.

    I’m more curious about your position on c) above. Do you feel that the lack of trust is legitimate? It seems that so much of the attack on public schools (putting aside the liberals you mention) occurs because the many strands of the Republican party share an antipathy towards them, but for different reasons. Its religious wing condemns the godlessness of schools and wants government money for religious schools. The market-oriented wing believes that competition will make schools better. The business wing wants more of the huge pot of public money that goes to education and wants more job training outsourced from themselves to the schools (remember the alleged deficit of engineers and scientists that left a half-million jobs unfilled?) The political activists want to decrease the pay and and political power of the teacher unions, just as businesses decry the influence of unions. There are creationists with their goals, and polls that suggest that only a minority of Americans actually believe in evolution. Attacking public education is a perfect storm for the Republican party.

    Some of “The Manufactured Crisis” is persuasive. The real problems of schools notwithstanding, I believe that a substantial amount of the lack of trust in schools is related to this rhetorical firestorm from the many factions of the right against schools. Hence polls that suggest people think schools are failing, but their own school is fine. (Again, many real problems, they just don’t line up all that well with the rhetoric and lack of trust.)

    Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered by Gerald W. Bracey does a nice job of dealing with many of these issues as well.


  2. Peter Levine

    I’ve been very much influenced by my experience in relation to the District of Columbia Public Schools–as a parent, spouse, and citizen. If the DCPS were given a large grant for service-learning, I am virtually certain that the money would disappear in the downtown bureaucracy (which consumes 56% of all the system’s funding), and virtually the only decent programs would appear in relatively affluent elementary schools in the Northwest quadrant of the city.

    In other words, my confidence in the DC school system is extremely low, notwithstanding that our kid is enrolled in a DC public school, my wife teaches in one, and so do several of our closest friends. Most middle class liberals in the area have so little confidence that they have put their own children in private schools or suburban public systems.

    To be sure, DCPS is one of the lowest performing systems in the country, but there is no large urban system that does dramatically better. Suburban systems are much better, but they don’t address equity concerns that are fundamental for liberals.

    I think if you put together: a) folks like me who keep their kids in urban systems for ideological reasons but carry many amazing stories of systematic failure, plus b) middle-class liberals who wouldn’t even think of enrolling their own kids in an urban system, you have a substantial group of influential liberals, without whom NCLB would never have passed.

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