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August 03, 2005

service-learning: latest research

Service-learning, which is present in 44 percent of American high schools, means a combination of community service with academic work on the same topic. For example, students may volunteer in a homeless shelter while reading articles about homelessness and writing papers on the subject. I am a proponent of this approach, having devoted much of my own discretionary time to a service-learning project. However, I think we proponents should squarely face research findings about service-learning that raise serious questions. In the light of these findings, not our message but our practice probably needs to change.

For instance, CIRCLE sponsored a recent study by Shelley Billig, Sue Root, et al. that was unusual in that it actually compared service-learning students to comparable students in regular social studies classes. (Very little service-learning research is comparative). Billig et al. found that service-learning kids were significantly more likely to say they intended to vote and that they enjoyed school. These were two positive results, but on the many other indicators, the service-learning students scored the same as the comparison group. Moreover, there was much more variation among the service-learning classes, with some scoring high above--and others, far below--the average. The more effective service-learning classes were taught by teachers who had been using that approach for a long time. There was less variation in the regular social studies programs.

Clearly, there is some good news in the study. Among other things, schools need not sacrifice academic knowledge by using experiential education, because kids in the service-learning program scored as well as the comparison group on knowledge questions. On the other hand, if I were a school administrator who did not have a prior commitment to service-learning, this is what I would probably say in response to the study:

"I am going to allow service-learning, because some of my teachers who are dedicated to it get quite good results. I don't want to sacrifice those results or discourage a subculture of my teachers who are motivated to use community-service in their classes. However, I'm not going to do much to encourage service-learning, either. After all, it's likely to be expensive and possibly controversial. On average, we can get the same results using more conventional approaches. Moreover, the existence of some real dud projects in service-learning makes me think that quality might decline if we tried to increase the frequency of this approach. It's good for self-selected teachers and perhaps self-selected kids, but it's not for the mainstream. If anything, I believe we need less service-learning with more quality control."

This kind of response--based on the most recent comparative research--should be something of a wake-up call for those of us in the service-learning business.

Posted by peterlevine at August 3, 2005 09:55 AM

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