Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened To Service Learning?

Fads come and go in education as any teacher or administrator over the age of 30 knows. Service learning, however, was not (and is not) a fad. Defined broadly as K-12 students providing “community service” it has been in public and private schools for over a century. But it did have its faddish moments in the 1980s and 1990s–see Ngram. And it remains popular among policymakers and practitioners who see schools’ primary duty as developing “good” citizens. But issues of what exactly is service learning, who benefits most–students? community?–and toward what ends–individual giving back? solving community problems?–persist.

What is service learning and when did it begin?

Like most school innovations, service learning has had multiple meanings since it was introduced into schools in the 1970s. Policymakers, researchers, and practitioners have various definitions. Distinguishing between students doing community service and school-based service learning has made definitions hard to pin down for decades.

Community service (e.g. students visiting  the elderly,  cleaning up parks, feeding the homeless, volunteering in hospitals and early childhood day care centers) has been an feature of schooling for over a century. And it remains so. In a 2008 survey of principals, 60 percent of elementary schools had students engaged in both voluntary or required community service activities while 74 percent of middle schools and 86 percent of high schools did also.

For all the diverse definitions, service learning in K-12 schools comes down to a planned experience integrated into the regular curriculum that contains goals and opportunities for students to reflect on what they do (e.g., internships, field studies, science projects in community) and what they are learning (see herehere, and here).

Some examples:

*Angie started her senior year behind on the service hours her high school required for graduation. She scrambled to find something she could fit in between volleyball, applying to colleges, and hanging out with friends. She signed up to help out with a shelter for homeless families run by the local Catholic Charities office. She thought it would be something easy, like serving meals or playing with the kids…. Angie was eventually assigned some of the hands-on tasks she had expected, such as sorting through donated children’s clothing for usable items and helping school-age homeless children with homework. But each week the program staff also engaged her and fellow youth volunteers in an activity aimed at raising their awareness of the needs of the families they were serving and the reasons for their homelessness. At first it was just discussing several of the readings they were assigned. Later on they were given a chance to interview current and former shelter clients about their lives and take field trips to affiliated agencies working to help homeless families find jobs, housing, and treatment for drug and alcohol addictions. At several points, volunteers were asked to write a reflection about how their volunteer work was going and what they were learning about themselves, their clients, or their society. Angie was genuinely disappointed when her service project ended in December. She had found new friends among her fellow volunteers, and became e-mail pals with several of the children she worked with. She wrote an article for her school paper on the effects of the economy on vulnerable families and organized a showing of artwork created by the homeless children she worked with at a local gallery.

*Middle school students wanted to honor the local heroes who had a positive impact on their community. To prepare, the youths took a bus tour of their ethnically diverse neighborhood, heard folk stories retold by local residents, and wrote their own stories. The students then interviewed local heroes and compiled those interviews into a book. They honored the local heroes at an awards banquet and gave readings of the book at their school. The book was then donated to a local resource center. To reflect on their work, each student wrote both an essay on why we need heroes and also an evaluation of the project. The class celebrated their success with a gathering that included community-building activities and food from their cultural heritages.

What problems does service learning aim to solve?

Embedding service learning in the curriculum and having students engaged in the community seeks to reduce the gap between the classroom and the world outside the school. Sometimes called “experiential education”, doing field studies, pursuing community projects, and having internships as part of school-based service learning contrasts sharply with students’ common experience in academic subjects. Service  learning, then, offers an antidote to the familiar transmission of content and skills from teacher and text in most classrooms.

Then there is the historic mission of tax-supported public schools to prepare the young to act as engaged citizens once they graduate. With the turn toward academic excellence as measured by test scores beginning in the late-1970s, concerns grew that schools were declining in their mission to develop civic competence in students who graduate. Falling turnout of young voters each time local, state, and federal officials ran for office (except for 2008) and drops among 18-25 young adults in community involvement were often cited as bellwethers of schooling failing in its mission to produce involved citizens.

Service learning programs have sought to remedy that problem. What exactly is a “good”citizen,however, remains contested by advocates for service learning.

Does service learning work?

When definitions of an innovation vary, expect the answer to this question to be, well, ambiguous. Often one hears: “depends upon what you mean by ‘work’….” And so it is for service learning. Much of the initial research focused on results from service learning experiences in K-12 schools such as improved attendance to test scores. A few such studies showed correlations, especially for low-income, minority students (see here). Other studies claim that service learning has had a positive effect on the personal development of youth and ability to connect to culturally diverse groups (see here and here).  The most recent analysis of past studies of service learning (2011) concluded that there were:

significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance.

Nearly all of these studies yield positive correlations but they remain associations and fall well below the threshold of showing that service learning caused these outcomes. As readers of this blog know, few innovations have been launched and sustained because of what “research says.” Political factors weigh far more heavily than research studies in determining the introduction or continuation of a program. And so it has been for service learning.

What has happened to service learning?

Since the 1970s when service learning in schools, distinguished from volunteering for community service, there was a spike in attention and action in the 1990s but over the past decade there has been a drop in actual school-based service learning programs. The most recent statistics I could find showed a drop in the percentage of schools offering service learning from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2008. What the percentage is in 2018, I do not know. It remains a clear presence in many schools across the nation.

No fad, then, is service learning. While it has ebbed and flowed over nearly a half-century, it is here to stay.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...