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October 20, 2003

hard-headed research on service-learning

I am going to give a plenary address to the annual Service-Learning Research Conference in a few weeks. ("Service-learning" means a combination of community service with academic work on the same topic: a common approach today.) I'm going to argue that research on service-learning needs to be much more tough-minded. Proponents need to show that average service-learning programs produce better outcomes over the long term than rival approaches, considering not only the benefits but also the costs (in time and money) and the risks. Such research requires random assignment of students to service-learning projects and to rival methods, and then long-term follow-up.

Some people object that it is unfair to demand such scrutiny. Why should we have to prove the cost-effectiveness of an intervention that clearly benefits some kids (and helps them to participate politically)? We rarely hold other major policies to the same standard. For example, Congress is about to pass an energy bill, ostensibly to increase domestic supplies of energy, that will cost about $16 billion. The aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to cost $87 billion for this year alone; its purpose is to build stable and friendly countries. And Congress has already cut taxes by $1.3 trillion over the next ten years, claiming that this will stimulate the economy. None of these huge bills had to pass any kind of rigorous, independent research test before it was enacted. In contrast, the total budget for Learn & Serve America (federal support for service-learning) has never surpassed $43 million. That's about one four hundredth of the size of the energy bill, and one four millionth the size of the tax cut. So why the need for elaborate research on service-learning?

The answer is that we live in a time when people are unwilling to part with money to help low-income kids, or kids of any background. I'm not just talking about Republicans; Democrats aren't much different. And I'm not just talking about politicians; a majority of American voters have the same attitude. Thus we face two alternatives: we can complain that our leaders won't take a chance on a promising approach, or we can figure out which approach will really make the most difference per dollar, and put all our energy into getting that approach implemented. Service-learning may fit the bill. It may benefit kids and also turn them into political actors, thereby changing the balance of power. Or it may not work; only rigorous research will tell.

October 20, 2003 12:21 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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