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September 27, 2007

the drawbacks of thinking about discrete educational programs

I gave a speech this morning (early this morning) to recipients of federal grants for service-learning. People in the audience run programs that meet the criteria of the Learn & Serve America program: they provide a certain amount of community service to each child, connect the service to academic work on the same topic, etc. This is the dominant way that we think about education today: as combinations of programs that can each be defined according to general criteria. Their average impact can then be measured (holding other factors constant), and we can decide to fund, require, reward, or test only the types of programs that we think work. See the What Works Clearinghouse for the quintessence of this approach.

This was also the approach we used in writing The Civic Mission of Schools report (2003), which identified six "promising practices" for civic education: classes on American history and civics; moderated discussion of current issues; extracurricular activities; student voice (i.e., honoring students’ opinions about school policies); simulations of legislation, diplomacy, and courts; and service-learning (i.e., combinations of community service with academic study). Since 2003, the evidence of positive effects from service-learning has increased.

However, as I told this morning's audience, there are several pitfalls to basing policy on service-learning, or any such "method," "approach," or "practice":

1. Practices that are institutionalized and defined receive the most support, even if they are not the most important. In our field, two of the "promising practices" in civic education get most of the attention: social studies classes and service-learning programs. I think that’s because they have budget lines (albeit too small) and job titles. In contrast, there's very little organized advocacy in favor of student voice in schools or extracurricular activities, because no one has a powerful self-interest in advocating for them.

2. There may be a risk that schools check off one or two of the promising practices and consider themselves to be meeting their civic missions. There is no research that allows us to say that particular combinations of practices work better than one program or another. But my gut tells me that you need a comprehensive approach. If, for example, you offer a single service-learning project but everything else about the school "teaches" the kids that they are not active and responsible citizens, it's hard to believe the service-learning course will work. Certainly, the effects of social studies classes and service-learning programs, while statistically significant, are not very large.

3. Such practices have to be done well. We should be concerned with quantity, quality, and equality. Quantity means how many kids get the opportunity. Quality means how good it is. And equality means how evenly is it distributed. There is a tendency for service-learning to degenerate into pretty meaningless exercises and for the high-quality opportunities to reach only the students who are bound for college.

4. Service-learning and other discrete educational programs need to be connected to much broader purposes or they will become ends in themselves. Service-learning can be connected to two ambitious movements:

  • The effort to redefine adolescence as a time of positive opportunity and contribution, not as a time of risk.
  • The effort to reform society by getting young people involved in changing institutions for the better.
  • If we merely offer service-learning because research studies find that it has positive effects on test scores or behavior, it will be stripped of its essential purpose and will degenerate. This is what happened, in my opinion, to the curricular innovations of the Progressive Era.

    September 27, 2007 2:04 PM | category: advocating civic education , education policy | Comments


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