The End of Service-Learning

Posted on April 28th, 2011 by admin

The end? Well, not exactly. Scratch that – not at all. I thought I was going to be writing about the amazing time I had in Atlanta, Georgia the at the NYLC National Service-Learning Conference. I mean, how pumped up can a person in my line or work feel surrounded by thousands of others who are as excited or even more crazy about service-learning? But there was something in the air the whole time we were celebrating.

At the same time,  Congress was talking about cutting $37.6 billion in the discretionary spending over FY 2010 levels, and some of our greatest allies were on the chopping block. So how could we celebrate? How could we say it was a new day for service-learning in one breath, while federal funding for service-learning was in jeopardy? How could we tout the national call to service one moment, and lament Washington’s dismissal of our programs the next? Is this the end of service-learning?

Not by a long shot. But right now, in some ways, it feels that way to a lot of us who are heavily involved in the movement toward service-learning in all K-12 schools.

So I came home from the conference, refreshed and rejuvenated, and began organizing my conference notes and business cards to begin processing and reflecting on what I had learned. And wouldn’t you know it? By then, the House Appropriations Committee recommended and Congress approved cutting ALL funding for Learn and Serve America. Which means our state Learn and Serve would almost certainly also be cut. AmeriCorps comes through the legislation with  partial (but significant) cuts in funding, but that means a new AmeriCorps scholarship aimed at pre-service educators who incorporate service-learning during their student teaching is in grave danger of getting the axe.

For those of us involved in educating young people, this is yet another slap in the face to the things we work so hard for – meaning this is only one small part of a bigger story. My colleague David Coffey recently shared with all of you his letter to the editors of some Michigan newspapers that aptly demonstrated the value of teachers, contrasting starkly with prevailing conventional wisdom to the contrary. A few months ago, another colleague, Roger Wilson, pointed out that teachers have been easy targets for almost three decades of misplaced and overgeneralized blame.

Now, in my estimation, the elimination of Learn and Serve funding is taking away a valuable resource and partner for teachers to reclaim their rightful place in their communities as valued professionals. It is depriving students of opportunities to do meaningful and productive work in their schools and communities as current and future citizens (using crucial critical thinking skills along the way). It is keeping constituents from seeing that young people have value and voice in the things that are important to their community.

Does Learn and Serve do all that? Look, this has an effect on our teachers, students, and communities mainly because eliminating these programs sends a message: We don’t value service-learning. And we have to ask: Why is that? Is it because politicians are unaware that high-quality service-learning addresses vital curriculum standards and will help with academic achievement? Because high-quality service-learning is way more than a simple trash cleanup day or a good leaf-raking. Maybe the connection between service and standardized test scores isn’t strong enough. Or, more likely, maybe it just doesn’t look like much on paper to politicians, and darn it, something has to get cut.

What does this mean?

These cuts are more than issues of budget and funding. They are at the core issues of what we value in our culture. We, above all developed nations, are a country devoted to service – because of our history we do it better and more often than anyone else. But younger generations have trended away from that long tradition. In the year 2000, the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam keenly demonstrated that due to technological “individualizing,”  Americans were becoming more isolated, less involved in their communities, and harder to engage in civic endeavors. While a 2006 USA Today article reported positive growth of civic engagement among young people in the upper-middle class, it also pointed out that the most economically disadvantaged youth were more detached than ever. One guess where schools with high proportions of students from low SES families can turn when they want to get more service opportunities in their schools?

By 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the overall volunteer rate was down to 26.3%, with young adults the least likely to volunteer.

High quality service learning counteracts downward trends in civic engagement. NCLB  focuses on core subject areas, but not civics or government or other social studies. Where are 21st Century students learning to become good and active citizens? When they are getting standardized tests crammed down their throats, where is the time to help them learn critical thinking skills or problem solving? Heck, forget problem-solving, how do they know what questions to ask in the first place? A quick primer in high-quality service-learning will convince most rational thinkers that it in fact addresses these and many other issues with supreme efficacy.

I’ve been seeing some emails and Facebook posts circulating about these and other cuts. One, forwarded from an acquaintance who is a staunch advocate for public programs, posted this:

“Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, AmeriCorps, NPR and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401Ks, took trillions in TARP money, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes? Yeah, me neither.”

It is worth noting that during arguments over these budget cuts, the defunding of Planned Parenthood (2, 3, 4, 5; “cuts to planned parenthood” produced 601 news articles on Google News), NPR and PBS (2, 3, 4; “cuts to NPR and PBS” produced 180 news articles on Google News) were making the headlines. It was recently discovered that NPR would not have major cuts, even after their CEO resigned after she was caught on tape blasting Republicans. Okay, I advocate for NPR on my personal time, but I can’t help but ask myself what in the world is going on? After all, cuts to K-12 education programs? That’s old news (or no news, since “cuts to Learn and Serve” barely registered in cyberspace or anywhere outside of the organizations advocating for it). So Learn and Serve will pass quietly out of existence, as far as the general public is (or isn’t) concerned. And an emphasis on future learners, future citizens, and future American education falls to a generation that by design is potentially less engaged earlier in life than those before them, unaware that advocating for programs like Learn and Serve is even a possibility.

I’m fortunate for now; my work with service-learning isn’t directly reliant on funding that is being eliminated on the federal level. But there are numerous colleagues and associates who are invaluable to the work we do, and who are directly affected by this defunding. On a personal and professional level, I care about them. This also affects the school districts we work with, because now we won’t be able to direct the educators and administrators in those districts to our state’s Learn and Serve division. The Service-Learning National Clearinghouse, a resource that runs through Learn and Serve, falls under the direction of the Corporation for National and Community Service, so I fear for the future of that as well.

I’ll end this with an analogy. Before I moved into my current house, my neighbor took it upon himself to cut down a tree on my property that was growing annoyingly close to his garage, which he valued most among all things in his yard. When I moved in, all that remained was this useless, awkward stump. Now that I’m in the process of building a fence in the backyard (since, apparently, it is one of the hallmarks of being a good pet owner) I have cause to observe the results of that destruction. The thing is, my neighbor didn’t understand that the tree he was trying to eradicate had a large and intricate system of roots, working unseen under the surface, that continued to nourish and support this stump. So now, two years later, I see that there are new branches growing from the stump in proliferation, dozens of tiny branches reaching up to the sunlight, strong and thriving. He tried to kill the tree, but the tree persevered.

Ultimately, in the short term it will be the responsibility of non-profits, philanthropists, institutes of higher education, and for-profit businesses to pick up the pieces – and let me tell you there is a dedicated network in these sectors.  Learn and Serve is gone, but it’s possible to use this current dilemma as an opportunity to double down on our advocacy for service and service-learning, in the hopes that the public leaders in this country will find the value in it as well in the years ahead of us.


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