speech on service-learning

I gave the lunchtime plenary speech at the annual service learning research conference on Saturday. I have pasted the text “below the fold.” (Click “continue reading” to continue reading the speech.) I argued that proponents of service-learning–and of other forms of youth civic work–need to engage the national policy debate. One way is have influence is to generate the kind of research that may impress particular categories of national leaders, such as those who really care about equity in education. The other way is to provide an alternative model of politics and thereby change the way that the national political debate unfolds.

A valid criticism of my speech is that I gave too little attention to the hard and successful work that has already been done to build service-learning as a bottom-up movement. It has spread from school to school; and as it had grown (with minimal federal support), the quality has probably improved. However, I believe that the movement remains limited and vulnerable without more favorable national policies–and no one but us can influence policymakers.

I come to you from Washington, DC, which has been as warm and humid as Tampa for many months. We have no manatees, but we do have some sharks. You may have seen some of them on the Sunday morning talk shows.

The word “Washington” and the phrase “DC” mean different things to people from that area.

Washington means Members of Congress, lobbyists, lawyers, reporters; K Street and Chevy Chase; The LaGuardia Shuttle, and Air Force One, McMansions and the Watergate.

“DC” means teachers, police officers, artists, bus drivers, receptionists, and janitors; U Street, 18th St, Georgia Avenue; Metro trains, the Beltway, and Greyhound; row houses with decorated brick cornices and wooden front porches

Washington has the World Bank; DC has SunTrust Bank. Washington has Reagan National Airport. DC just as National. Washington has the CIA. DC has the DMV.

I am not wholly of either place, having grown up in upstate New York. I certainly don’t have any standing in the corridors of power, nor am I truly a member of the DC community. But I have some vicarious insight into both places. I work in a school of public policy, which means I am supposed to study national politics, and I participate in the world of nonprofits that try to influence policy. I’ve at least had the opportunity to learn from failure.

Meanwhile, my daughter is enrolled in a DC public school and my wife teaches in one; she is also civically engaged as a very local elected official.

Washington is relevant to service-learning because I believe that national policy is basically hostile to what we’re trying to do. I believe our research should address the national policy debate. This seems essential if we want service-learning to grow. I also believe it is a civic duty to engage with national policymakers, who (after all) represent the American people through the only system of representation we’ve got. I did not say that we have to agree with policymakers, only that we have to participate in the same debate.

By the way, it is not means only–or mainly–the Bush administration, Republicans, or conservatives who have the most difficult agenda for us. If they were the problem, some in this room might adopt the strategy of waiting for a change of power. But that would be a serious miscalculation, in my opinion.

In the current political climate, service learning is fairly marginal. The president has requested zero dollars each year for the federal Learn & Serve America program, which funds service-learning in kindergarten through college. The service-learning community successfully fights back, winning some appropriations in each Congress, but only with much effort–and the program has shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms.

Meanwhile, The No Child Left Behind Act, signed in January 2002, is the apogee of a national movement to focus on reading and mathematics. This movement has probably caused schools to reduce the time devoted to civics and service.

Several foundations have moved out of the field of service-learning or youth politics. These trends have threatened the various nonprofits that develop curricula and programs for civic education.

If we take a broader view, we may notice that new federal laws no longer guarantee or allocate money for any educational opportunities. Lawmakers don’t say that they’re going to help kids by requiring or funding or rewarding service, extracurricular participation, student voice in schools–or art, music, foreign language, or practically any input. Instead, NCLB requires outcomes, such as passing scores on reading and math tests.

The underlying reason is that policymakers do not trust public schools. Conservatives see them as bureaucratic, unionized, and godless. But liberals see them as unfair, corrupt, and repressive institutions.

In fact, some of the authors of NCLB and its strongest backers are liberals and members of the national civil rights groups. They believe that schools deliver poor education to disadvantaged kids. They say that if schools are simply given resources or told to provide services or opportunities, the results will be bad. If, for instance, the federal government told schools that they must provide service-learning opportunities, some schools would offer very ineffective, hollow versions of these programs. Instead, we need to hold them accountable for measurable outcomes and allow them to develop their own strategies for meeting those goals.

This is where my experience with DC (not Washington, but DC), is relevant. The DC Public School System spends about $13,000 per child–an amount that has risen rapidly as enrollments have dropped–but only $5,355 is spent on teachers, classroom equipment, and other forms of “instruction.” Test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success are among the lowest in the nation, and highly unequal by race and class.

Anyone who knows the system from the inside knows that it is extremely dysfunctional. I, for one, do not believe that if the system were given a substantial budget for service-learning, the results would be any good. Thus I understand why national policymakers, when asked the question, “What are you going to do to educate our least advantaged kids?” do not answer: “Provide opportunities.”

Now, this focus on outcomes instead of opportunities bothers me for several reasons.

First, NCLB–unavoidably–selects a small list of outcomes: all ones that can readily be measured in high-stakes exams. Those of us who also care about civic knowledge and habits, artistic development, foreign languages, and moral learning are faced with a dilemma. Either we demand tests in our favored areas (some of which aren’t very testable), or we try to smuggle our subjects into schools without testing them. The latter course is difficult when schools are struggling to get their kids through the required exams.

Any quantitative assessment can miss subtle but important changes in youth that don’t show up in questionnaires.

Quantitative measures are usually generic–they would apply anywhere. For example, we test students on their understanding of the US Constitution, or we ask them about their interest in voting. These are generic questions. But a good service-learning project might have idiosyncratic results appropriate only for the local community in which it occurs. For example, students who clean up Tampa Bay might learn about the Bay, not about the US Constitution. To learn about their own place is an achievement, but not one that would show up on generic evaluations.

Quantitative evaluation can be–or at least seem to be–highly technical, and therefore the business of experts. But service-learning is about allowing kids and other “ordinary people” to make their own decisions

Second, a focus on outcomes encourages us to think of children and teenagers as people who are prone to fail. We work hard to identify those most “at risk” and to intervene so that they avoid clear marks of failure (mainly, bad test scores). As a result, we may set our sights too low, forgetting that flourishing people need more than adequate test scores. As Karen Pittman says, “Adolescents who are merely problem-free are not fully prepared for their future.”

Third, not everything we do in school should be measured by its effects on individual students. Whatever skills schools may provide, they are also places where we spend some 18,000 hours of our lives. Some activities during those hours ought to be instrinsically satisfying or else meaningful because they benefit other people (or nature), not because they enhance students’ individual skills.

A school is a community, and communities ought to have news sources, discussions of their own issues and problems, and opportunities to serve. Thus I would support student newspapers and other media; students’ discussions of local issues; and service programs even if they had no demonstrable impact on students’ skills or knowledge.

These activities should be done well. There is a big difference between a fine scholastic newspaper and a poor one. But the difference is not measured by the impact on kids’ reading scores. It has to do with the seriousness, breadth, and fairness of the coverage and the impact on students’ knowledge of their own community. Likewise, the quality of service projects has much to do with whether the service actually addresses problems, quite apart from whether the participants gain skills and knowledge.

Fourth, many of us think that we should be accountable to ourselves and to those whom we know personally for doing our best work. A good student feels that kind of accountability; she does her best work for her own sake or to satisfy her teacher or classmates. She doesn’t work hard to get a good grade. Quantitative evaluation makes us accountable for achieving targets that can seem external or artificial–kind of like doing our schoolwork just to get a high grade.

Finally, deep distrust for institutions like schools is fundamentally unhealthy. It leads to simplistic, top-down, punitive solutions that fail to capture the energy and enthusiasm of our teachers, administrators, parents, activists, and students. In any case, this distrust is unjustified; most of our schools actually do pretty well considering their limited resources, the onerous demands and mandates they face, and all the social problems that we expect them to solve on their own.

But …. the other side of the argument is that some of our children cannot read or understand basic math. About one third of all our youth are not completing high school by age 19. They are at great risk of failure in life. They will be unable to participate as citizens or create works of art if they are poor and sick and prone to arrest–all of which are consequences of dropping out and of illiteracy. Our urgent priority must be to identify them, help them, and punish those adults who “leave them behind.”

That is the prevailing mindset. It reflects idealistic motives and a certain amount of research and data. Because some of the motives behind NCLB are very idealistic, good arguments and evidence may change the opinions of important people–people like George Miller, the Democratic leader on education.

But the kind of evidence that we provide needs to change somewhat. We know that a small service-learning class, organized by a charismatic and dedicated teacher and provided in a favorable setting, has positive effects. That is not the question policymakers ask when they consider whether to set aside millions for service learning or build service learning into state standards. They want to know what is the impact of a policy–such as a requirement or a funding stream. And they want to know how that policy compares to others.

In this room, many of us–including me–would like to use service-learning projects as opportunities to learn how young people think about issues. But that question is not germane to the public policy debate. Again, we need to show that a policy in favor of service-learning–such as a financial investment of public dollars, a test or other evaluation, or a requirement–would have positive effects. To answer that question, we need research conducted in standard educational settings that are subject too public policy–especially public schools–with some kind of comparison. We at least have to compare the same kids to themselves before and after they experience service-learning. Better than that is to compare truly comparable kids who experience service-learning and some other respectable and promising form of education.

What hypotheses would really move decision makers if we could prove them with research? I will suggest two.

First, we might hypothesize that service-learning is good for young people.

The prevailing view is that adolescents are “at risk” for academic failure, drug-abuse, and other pathologies and therefore require surveillance, assessment, prevention, and–when necessary–remediation and discipline.

But adolescents also have assets that they can contribute to their communities: energy, idealism, creativity, and knowledge. By giving students opportunities to collaborate, discuss, serve, create cultural products, and address significant issues, we can help them to succeed.

Considerable evidence supports the link between community service and extracurricular participation, on one hand, and healthy development, on the other. For example:

Marie Mora just presented her research with Alberto Davila that finds that service projects and participation in student government substantially increased the odds that students graduated from high school and college. Service experiences–when required as part of high school courses–seem to raise the odds of graduation from college by 22 percentage points. “involvement in student government between 1990 and 1992 increased the odds of being a college graduate by 2000 by nearly 18 percentage points.

Several programs have been shown in rigorous tests to cut the dropout rate or the teen pregnancy rate.

We can be sure that these small-scale programs work. Our own eyes tell us that they are great when we observe these programs. But a policy is more than a small-scale program. Would policies that increased the scale of service learning work?

In their 1999 evaluation of Learn & Serve America, Alan Melchior, Larry Bailis, and colleagues found that funded programs had positive effects on students’ civic attitudes, habits of volunteering, and success in school.

However, their study was limited to “fully implemented” service-learning projects: ones that involved “substantial hours” of high quality service, “face-to-face experience with service recipients,” and opportunities for reflection. Out of 210 programs funded by Learn & Serve America that the evaluators had randomly selected for their study, only seventeen met the criteria for being “fully implemented,” even though the rest would certainly call themselves “service-learning” and had won grants in a competitive process. If all 210 programs had been included, it is not clear that the average effects of service-learning would have been positive.

Alan and Larry collected their data almost a decade ago. The field has progressed since then. In a smaller study published in 2005, Shelley Billig and her colleagues found that average service-learning classes had slightly better civic outcomes than average social studies classes. Students who had been exposed to service-learning gained more knowledge of civics and government and felt more confident about their own civic skills, compared to a matched group of students who had taken conventional social studies classes. However, service-learning did not raise students’ sense of their own community attachment or their own ability to make a difference. (Possibly, the difficulty of the projects they undertook turned them into pessimists about achieving social change). In any case, these average results concealed very large differences between the best and worst service-learning. Some classes in Billig’s small study that claimed to use service-learning produced notably poor results.

If a school superintendent asked me what the research shows about service-learning, I would say that it supports creating a small competitive grant program and providing voluntary opportunities for teachers, such as seminars on how to organize a community-service project. The research does not, at this time, support allocating a lot of district money for service-learning or setting a high target for the rate of student participation.

In this respect, service-learning is different from social studies teaching. Standard social studies classes are much more common than service-learning programs and are probably distributed in a normal curve, such that classes of average quality are most common. We can tell from exam results that the average-quality classes have positive effects. Thus I would advise a superintendent or a state official to mandate social studies classes for all students (while also trying to support or weed out the worst teachers and reward the best ones). I would regard service-learning differently: as something to be cherished and admired when it is done well, but not to be rapidly expanded.

It’s not especially good news if the existing research does not support the case for widespread adoption. But that’s partly because we don’t have much research that’s rigorous enough to persuade skeptics. Maybe more studies would reveal that some particular categories of service-learning are so good that they should be massively expanded, generously funded, or even mandated by law.

My first hypothesis was that service-learning is good for kids. The second hypothesis is that service-learning is good for democracy

You may be thinking that policymakers don’t care about “democracy” in an authentic and just sense. That may be true, but there are certainly some political leaders, at least at the grassroots level–and I believe also in Congress–who do want better democracy. They may not be sold on service-learning as a vehicle.

In other words, there are decision-makers for whom the goals are social justice, diversity, or equality. That does not mean that they favor service-learning. They have alternatives, such as voter mobilization, media campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, and even social studies classes.

We know that America faces grievous challenges, such as a high school dropout rate of one third, homeland security threats, and global warming. That’s my list. Yours might be somewhat different, but we all agree that the country must deal with complex and serious problems.

America has never overcome any major challenge without tapping the skills, energies, and passions of millions of our citizens. Collaboration is the genius of American democracy.

Collaboration and problem-solving are in decline. People are substantially less likely to work on community projects or to attend meetings than they were a generation ago.

This decline most seriously affects working-class and poor people and the communities in which they live. People without college experience have virtually disappeared from civil society. But we need all our people to participate in meetings and work on public problems.

If we want this to happen, we must focus on youth, because they are more malleable than adults. Very few interventions have been found to have lasting impact on adults. But specific interventions aimed at youth have been found to matter. E.g., 40 year effects from extracurricular activities (Jennings and Stoker).

But does service-learning in ordinary schools make a lasting difference in students’ civic knowledge, commitment, and skills?

A recent study in the Chicago Public Schools found that service learning had substantial positive effects on students’ civic commitments. The authors, Joe Kahne and Sue Sport, ask us to imagine a Chicago student who is average with respect to demographics and receiving and average CPS schooling and set of extracurricular activities. “Imagine further that this student comes from a family where his/her parents rarely discuss politics or current events and from a neighborhood where there is little social capital –in fact assume that this student is only at the 16th percentile in both of these variables. If the student experienced opportunities to learn about civics and to participate in service learning at the sample mean in this study, that student’s commitments to civic participation would be at about the 40th percentile. If, however, the student experienced opportunities to learn that were one standard deviation above the system average, then, despite the lack of focus on these issues in the students’ neighborhood and home, that same student would be expected to develop civic commitments that would place him/her well above average–in fact at about the 70th percentile.”

This is an important study and a model of the kind of research we need to persuade decision makers that service-learning really enhances youth civic and political participation. But we need more of that kind of research, and we need especially to ask:

What kinds of political participation does service-learning encourage?

How does it compare to other forms of education, such as social studies classes or youth media production?

How lasting are the effects?

I have been talking as if our job is to accommodate ourselves to political reality. I do believe we have a responsibility to engage with politics and policy, but we need not surrender to the status quo.

Service learning, like all good civic education, provides opportunities to reform politics and public institutions such as the Washington DC public schools.

Teaching students to admire a flawed system is mere propaganda. If we try to raise students’ interest in politics but leave our institutions unchanged, we are setting them up for disappointment and alienation. But we will fail in reforming the political system unless we have a new generation of citizens who are concerned, active, and informed. Thus civic education and political reform must go hand-in-hand. We must prepare students for citizenship but also improve democracy for citizens.

In the Progressive Era, great reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey and their followers invented many important opportunities for students to learn civic skills. This was the period when student newspapers, student governments, and service clubs were invented. But the same reformers who fought to give students opportunities to participate also tried to change big social institutions. Once the social reform movement ran out of steam, the Progressive educational methods became ways to accommodate young people to the existing political system.

Service learning, at its best, provides alternatives to politics as we know it. It exemplifies a kind of politics that is in desperately short supply today.

In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems. But service-learning embodies the alternative approach of “positive youth development.”

In general, we see education as the job of teachers and principals in schools (public or private). It’s a specialized task to be measured by experts. Success then boils down to passing tests. But education should be a community-wide function, the process by which a whole community chooses and transmits to the next generation appropriate values, traditions, skills, practices, and cultural norms. Service learning at its best crosses the lines between schools and communities and reflects a more inclusive definition of “education.”

In general, our politics is constrained by the fact that investments can quickly be moved away from communities that decide to impose regulations (or cultural norms) that businesses don’t like. It’s hard to impose liberal policies, like higher taxes, if companies can move away to avoid them. It’s also hard to impose conservative policies, like preferences for heterosexual marriage. It’s hard to govern.

But schools (and colleges) are important economic institutions that are rooted in their communities and dependent on them. If teachers and students perform service and research, then schools become institutions that have value for their communities and that can be governed.

In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk.

Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Youth civic engagement at its best epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, express their interests and listen to others, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.

In general, our politics is manipulative. Experts–politicians, pundits, consultants, marketers, leaders of advocacy groups, and the like–study us, poll us, focus-group us, and assign us to gerrymandered electoral districts; they slice-and-dice us; and then they send us tailored messages designed to encourage us–or to scare us–into acting just how they want.

This is true of liberal politicians as well as conservative ones. It is true of public interest lobbies as well as business lobbies. It is true of big nonprofits as well as political parties.

It is also true of many ostensibly civic groups. For example, CIRCLE has been part of the movement to increase youth voter turnout. Techniques for that purpose are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the 1990s, you might just mail people flyers reminding them to register. Then organizations began to test various messages with focus groups before they printed their flyers. Now they do true experiments, randomly selecting some addresses to receive one flyer instead of another and keeping track of the response rates. (The messages that people like best in focus groups often perform worst in the field.) This is just an example of growing efficiency in public-interest, nonpartisan politics.

Americans know they are being manipulated, and they resent it. They want to be able to decide for themselves what is important, what should be done, and then act in common to address their problems. They are interested in what other people think; they want to get out of what students call their “bubbles.” They want an open-ended, citizen-centered politics in which the outcomes are not predetermined by professionals.

Service learning, at its best, is open-ended politics. We don’t try to manipulate our students or neighbors into adopting opinions or solutions that we think are right—at least, we shouldn’t. We give them opportunities to deliberate and reflect and then act in ways that seem best to them. In a time of increasingly sophisticated manipulative politics, these opportunities are precious.

I’ve argued that we are obligated to engage the national debate.

Tougher measurement, evaluation, and research would make us more effective.

But research is only a tool, not our goal.

Service-learning is only a tool, not our goal.

Our goal is to raise the next generation of Americans in and for a just and humane democracy.