Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A “Crisis Point” for Service Learning?

Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE, blogged the other day about the recently released report “Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools” by the Corporation for National & Community Service. The report shows, among other things, the decline in the practice of service-learning in K-12 schools from 32% in 1999 to 24% today. Peter commented that:

It's my sense that the movement for service-learning has reached a crisis point. It isn't included in federal education law; it isn't a priority in an era of concern about reading and math; the federal funding has been cut (in real terms) since 2001; and the quality of programs is so uneven that outsiders could be reasonably skeptical about its value. On the other hand, the best programs are superb; they fit the outlook of the incoming administration; and there is strong support for service-learning in the Kennedy-Hatch Serve-America bill that both Senators McCain and Obama promised to sign. That bill would direct most resources to poor districts, which today are much less likely to offer service-learning. So we could be poised for improvements in quality, quantity, and equality. Or else service-learning could falter if Kennedy-Hatch isn't fully funded and the grassroots movement continues to shrink.

In one respect I think Peter is missing more prosaic reasons for the decline: NCLB pressures. It’s not just the focus on “reading and math.” Schools have curtailed and narrowed curricular offerings, focused on the so-called “bubble kids” who, if passing, help a school reach AYP, expanded test prep, and, especially in urban schools, fixated on instrumental models of teaching and learning that marginalize more wholistic notions of the educated child. In such an age of standardized accountability, of course service-learning offerings would be minimized and marginalized. And especially when a reform effort at the K-12 level is not rooted deeply, it becomes a casualty of another innovative pedagogical and curricular offering left behind in an age of all too many things left behind.

But what really caught my eye was Peter’s sense of a “crisis point.” I am much more in tune with service-learning in higher education, where service-learning is riding the wave of “engagement”: a scholarship of engagement; community engagement; civic engagement; pedagogies of engagement. Peter has his ear much closer to the ground of K-12 education, and if he feels this way, it says much about how a national movement (which is how I would describe the service-learning field) has been shunted, if not derailed, by the accountability and standards movement. Perhaps it is just his way to put pressure on stakeholders to prioritize the “Serve America” bill currently in Congress; or perhaps it is a simple descriptive detailing of the state of affairs in service-learning circles around K-12 education. If in fact it is the latter, then I can only point once again to the worry of any pedagogical innovation to the dust bin of “faddism” ($). The report, of course, points out the positives, especially the continued increase in “service” across K-12 education. But the decline of academic linkages bodes ill for “engagement” in higher education as accountability (through such testing as the Collegiate Learning Assessment) makes its way into the academy.

4 comments:

teacherken said...

Well, it depends on the jurisdiction. In theory, in Prince George's County MD, where I teach, we have service learning embedded within our social studies classes, at least at the high school level. On the other hand, the quality of the tasks that are included in that category really do not seem to me to be meaningful service learning.

As far as the relationship with NCLB, a couple of comments.

1) yes, there is curricular narrowing because of NCLB, but since states have social studies requirements for graduation from high school and service learning most often goes in those classes, there really is no reason service learning cannot be included. Remember, there is no requirement for testing under NCLB in social studies (which is why some elementary and middle schools are eliminating or reducing social studies instruction - trust me, we see it when they arrive in high school

2) there are some serious efforts to ensure that the reuthorization of NCLB ensures that social studies are NOT slighted - remember the effort by Roy Romer and Sandra Day O'Connor for Civic learning. Perhaps those concerned about service learning might consider a connection with that effort.

Of course, service learning should not be restricted to social studies, but given the current pressures of testing, that may be the only place we can maintain it.

Peace.

Craig A. Cunningham said...

It's always good to be skeptical about talk of "crises" in education (if only to avoid "crisis faddism," where reforms only seem like good ideas as long as a problem is on the front-burner of public consciousness). And so teacherken's reminder to look at particular jurisdictions is a good one.

However, your attempt to be encouraging about the "room" for service learning left in high school social studies classes is not very encouraging at all. If social studies is being squeezed out of elementary school due to NCLB (and of that I have no doubt), then high school social studies will likely be devoted to covering the basics of American history that tend to represent the "content" of graduation requirements. Focusing attention in high school on these basics, rather than on analysis of the truly difficult task of preserving (or reasserting) democracy, will hardly help "service learning" to be better integrated into subject-matter.

By focusing attention at the elementary grades on "basic" (testable) skills, NCLB encourages schools to adopt mindless, non-critical curricula that hardly prepare the US to "compete" internationally or even to maintain our most cherished ideals. It is, in almost every respect, a "dumbing down" regime that continues to press schools into social reproduction rather than education.

Muazzam Mehmood said...

I'm of the same opinion...



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