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.]