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November 7, 2003

service-learning research

Salt Lake City: I gave the keynote luncheon address today at the International Service-Learning Research Conference. I argued that we need research to test whether service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study) works as well or better than competing approaches to civic education. The best way to prove causality is an experiment in which students are randomly assigned to the "treatment" (here, service-learning) or to a control group, and then the two groups are compared. That's the "gold standard," although there are ways to approximate random selection if it proves to be impossible. There has never been anything like a random experiment to test whether (or how well) service-learning works as civic education.

Several people who spoke from the floor expressed the views that (a) research will never settle any debates in education, because the results are always murky and contested; and (b) policymakers won't listen to research, no matter how strong it may seem. I said that for us, research is necessary but not sufficient. I realize that scholarly papers don't just jump off the shelf and pass legislation; we also need political organization. The service-learning movement is beginning to organize itself, as shown by the robust defense of Americorps this fall. But research is necessary because we lack a large or wealthy constituency, so policymakers don't have to listen to us. Fortunately, there are some decision-makers in government, higher education, and philanthropy who genuinely want to achieve the best outcomes, and they would support service-learning if it really seemed to work. At present, they have reason to be skeptical.

November 7, 2003 10:13 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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