Students Need Help Meeting Service Mandates, Study Says

By Jeff Archer — May 14, 1997 4 min read

Results from a new study promise to fuel the ongoing debate over whether schools should require students to perform community service.

The report from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the most important factor determining whether students perform community service is not whether their schools require it, but whether schools arrange the service opportunities.

The study is based on a nationally representative telephone survey in 1996 of 8,043 students in grades 6-12. It found that 52 percent of the students had performed some kind of community service at schools that only arranged service opportunities. That proportion increased only slightly, to 56 percent, at schools that both arranged and required service.

But the participation rate fell sharply, to 19 percent, at schools that simply required service without arranging opportunities for students. (The results from all three categories of school policies had margins of error ranging from 1.7 percentage points to 7.6 percentage points.)

Mandate Debate

Such results add credence to the claim that encouragement goes further than requirements in getting students to take part in community service, said James Kielsmeier, who directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based National Youth Leadership Council.

“A mandate assumes that people won’t get involved with kids in service learning unless they’re required to do it,” he said. “I think that’s incorrect.”

Mr. Kielsmeier opposes state mandates that all students perform a certain amount of community service in order to graduate. Instead, he believes states can bring service opportunities to more students through incentives.

A 1985 law in Minnesota encourages districts to offer community-service opportunities to students by allowing school systems to receive state matching funds if they can raise local money to start new service programs.

About 80 percent of the state’s districts have embraced the deal, Mr. Kielsmeier said.

But officials in Maryland--home of the country’s only statewide community-service requirement--said incentives are not enough.

In the late 1980s, the Maryland state school board enacted a measure directing schools to offer their students service opportunities. But when few districts responded, the board later made community service a graduation requirement. (“Md. Students Scurry To Fulfill Service Learning,” April 16, 1997.)

The earlier policy “just didn’t have enough teeth in it,” said Luke Frazier, who directs the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which is monitoring the state’s progress. More than 90 percent of this year’s Maryland seniors have already completed the requirement, he said.

Service Learning

Maryland’s experience has also shown, however, that the schools most successful in getting students to complete the requirement are those with organized programs to link students with service projects, Mr. Frazier said.

Ideally, most advocates of community service say, such efforts should meld service projects with academic content in an approach called service learning.

“Nobody is saying just go out there and do the hours with no connection to course work,” Mr. Frazier said.

The NCES study also examined how school policies correlated with whether community service was incorporated into class work.

The results suggest that students who have done community service and whose schools required it were more likely to engage in service learning.

In schools that only arranged service opportunities, 14 percent of students said they were required to write about their service, and 22 percent said the activities contributed to a class grade. At schools that both required and arranged community service, those figures were 32 percent and 35 percent, respectively. (These results had margins of error ranging from 1.6 percentage points to 4.5 percentage points).

“The students should have a lot of preparation and also reflection, which gives them an opportunity to understand the meaning of what they’ve done,” said Carol Kinsley, the executive director of the Community Service Learning Center, based in Springfield, Mass.

Ms. Kinsley opposes the Maryland requirement, which she said puts too much of the onus on the students and not enough on districts to design creative service-learning programs. She said the NCES study shows that schools need to find ways to bring service opportunities to more students.

The report found that the students most likely to perform community service are white females with good grades who participate in other school activities.

“This doesn’t need to be just for the honors society,” Ms. Kinsley said. “We’ve seen across the country that students who are at risk can benefit from this because they become engaged.”

For More Information:

To order the report, “Student Participation in Community Service Activity,” mail a check for $4.75, payable to the Government Printing Office, to New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa.15250-7954. Include the publication’s GPO number: 065-000-00995-1.

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