CNCS: Student Service on the Rise, but Less Connected to Learning

New report shows fewer schools using effective education strategy

Wednesday The Corporation for National and Community Service released a new report showing that community service in U.S. schools has reached an all-time high. 68 percent of all K-12 schools offer or recognize some kind of service opportunities for their students but that service-learning is down.

The report, Community Service and Service-Learning in America’s Schools 2008 (PDF), found that while community service has increased in K-12 schools, the percentage of schools with service-learning declined from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2008.

The study is the result of a survey of a national sample of more than 2,000 K-12 public school principals across the United States.  The results were released at the Academy for Education Development.

To view the full report and other information, visit

“This report comes at a critical time when our educational needs are great, our resources scarce, and our educators are searching for answers,” said David Eisner, the out-going CEO of the Corporation.  “The number of students failing to graduate is rising to epidemic proportions.  Yet we see that many schools are missing a key opportunity to use this proven strategy to help their students become more motivated and engaged both in and out of the classroom.”

The reason service in school matters at all is that research shows that introducing young people to service sets them on a path to lifelong civic engagement.  Tuft’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reports that volunteering empowers youth with the knowledge that they can make a difference in their communities.  Last year the Corporation published another report, Leveling the Path to Participation, that also found that youth from disadvantaged circumstances who volunteer feel more influential in their communities than do their peers who don’t volunteer.

One guess as to the decline in service-learning is that school leaders may falsely believe that service-learning only benefits a student’s civic achievement. In truth, research has shown that service-learning increases a child’s capacity to achieve academically as well—by deepening the learning experience and diminishing negative behaviors.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • The majority of school districts do not provide service-learning policies, according to school principals.  Only 19 percent of school principals report that their districts have a policy that promotes service-learning, and 28 percent of principals do not know whether their district has such a policy.
  • Elementary schools are the least likely to offer service-learning activities.  20 percent of elementary schools have service-learning programs, compared to a quarter of middle schools and over a third (35%) of high schools.  Furthermore, over half (51%) of elementary school principals believe their students are too young to engage in service-learning.
  • The class gap in service learning is decreasing but still exists.  Schools in low-income areas are significantly less likely to have service-learning activities than other schools.  In 1999, schools in low-income areas were 57 percent less likely to have service-learning activities; in 2008 they were only 35 percent less likely to offer service-learning.  Still, only 20 percent of schools in low-income areas currently offer service-learning activities compared to 27 percent of schools that are not in low-income areas.

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