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.

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