The Impacts of Service-Learning on Youth, Schools and Communities: Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning, 1990–1999

The Impacts of Service-Learning on Youth, Schools and Communities: Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning, 1990–1999

Service-learning is a teaching strategy that links community service experiences to classroom instruction. This paper briefly presents recent research on the impacts of service-learning on K-12 youth, public schools and communities.

Prevalence of Service-Learning

According to a 1999 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 64% of all public schools and 83% of all public high schools organize some form of community service for their students. Nearly a third of all schools and half of public high schools provide service-learning programs, where the service that is being provided is linked with the school curriculum (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).

Rationale for Use in K-12 Public Schools

Educators are drawn to service-learning because they believe it produces important educational results for students, schools and communities. In individual interviews, they can clearly articulate their observations of the effects. They give many examples of students becoming more altruistic and caring, growing more concerned about their community and community issues, and learning more in specific content areas such as social studies or mathematics, or specific subject matters such as environment or the elderly (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999; Billig and Conrad, 1997; Duckenfield and Swanson, 1992; Eyler and Giles, 1998; Kinsley and McPherson, 1995; and many others).

Evidence of Impact

The research in the field has not caught up with the certainty and passion that educators feel for service-learning. What is available, though, begins to build a case for the impacts that practitioners believe to be true. This summary presents the past decade (1990-1999) of research on K-12 service-learning, organized by area of potential impact. It does not include all research on the topic, but rather is limited to those publications that have documented their results and have shown a positive impact. It is important to note that at the time of this writing, no research was identified with negative impacts, and only a few studies showed no impact or no sustained impact over time. A fuller treatment, including a critical analysis of this literature, will be summarized in a Learning In Deed brief to be published in May, 2000.

I. The Impact on Student Personal and Social Development

Service-learning has a positive effect on the personal development of public school youth.

  • Middle and high school students who engaged in quality service-learning programs showed increases in measures of personal and social responsibility, communication and sense of educational competence (Weiler, et. al., 1998).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning ranked responsibility as a more important value and reported a higher sense of responsibility to their school than comparison groups (Leming, 1998).
  • Students perceive themselves to be more socially competent after engaging in service-learning (Scales and Blyth, 1997; O’Bannon, 1999; Morgan and Streb, 1999).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning were more likely to treat each other kindly, help each other and care about doing their best (Berkas, 1997).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning were more likely to increase their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (Shaffer, 1993).
  • Middle school male students reported increased self-esteem and fewer behavioral problems after engaging in service-learning (Switzer, et. al., 1995).

Students who participate in service-learning are less likely to engage in “risk” behaviors.

  • Students in elementary and middle school service-learning programs showed reduced levels of alienation and behavioral problems (Stephens, 1995; Yates and Youniss, 1996).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning were less likely to be referred to the office for disciplinary measures (Follman, 1997; 1998).
  • High school and middle school students who were engaged in service-learning were less likely to engage in behaviors that lead to pregnancy or arrest (Melchior, 1999; Allen, et. al., 1994; Shaffer, 1993).
  • Middle school students who engaged in service-learning and experienced a structured health curriculum were less likely to engage in unprotected sexual activity or violent behavior (O’Donnell, et. al., (1999).

Service-learning has a positive effect on students’ interpersonal development and the ability to relate to culturally diverse groups.

  • Middle and elementary school students who participated in service-learning were better able to trust and be trusted by others, be reliable and accept responsibility (Stephens, 1995).
  • High school students who participated in high quality service-learning programs were more likely to develop bonds with more adults, agreed that they could learn from and work with the elderly and disabled and felt that they trusted others besides parents and teachers to whom they could turn for help (Morgan and Streb, 1999).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning showed greater empathy and cognitive complexity than comparison groups (Courneya, 1994).
  • Students who engaged in quality service-learning programs reported greater acceptance of cultural diversity (Melchior, 1999; Berkas, 1997).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning showed increases over time in their awareness of cultural differences and attitudes toward helping others (Shaffer, 1993; Stephens, 1995)
  • Students who participated in service-learning enjoyed helping others with projects, became more dependable for others and felt more comfortable communicating with ethnically diverse groups (Loesch-Griffin, et. al., 1995).

II. The Impact on Civic Responsibility

Service-learning helps to develop students’ sense of civic and social responsibility and their citizenship skills.

  • Students who engaged in high quality service-learning programs showed an increase in the degree to which they felt aware of community needs, believed that they could make a difference and were committed to service now and later in life (Melchior, 1999; Berkas, 1997).
  • High school students who participated in high quality service-learning programs developed more sophisticated understandings of socio-historical contexts, were likely to think about politics and morality in society and were likely to consider how to effect social change (Yates and Youniss, 1996; 1998).
  • Elementary and middle schools students who participated in service-learning developed a greater sense of civic responsibility and ethic of service (Stephens, 1995).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning increased their understanding of how government works (Berkas, 1997).

Service-learning provides opportunities for students to become active, positive contributors to society.

  • High school students who participated in service-learning and service are more likely to be engaged in a community organization and to vote 15 years after their participation in the program than those who did not participate (Youniss, et. al., 1997; Yates and Youniss, 1998).
  • High school students from five states who participated in high quality service-learning programs increased their political attentiveness, political knowledge and desire to become more politically active (Morgan and Streb, 1999).
  • Students who engage in service-learning feel that they can “make a difference” (O’Bannon, 1999; Cairn, 1999).
  • Over 80 percent of participants in high quality service-learning programs felt that they had made a positive contribution to the community (Melchior, 1999; Billig and Conrad, 1997; Scales and Blyth, 1997).

III. The Impact on Student Academic Learning

Service-learning helps students acquire academic skills and knowledge.

  • Students in over half of the high quality service-learning schools studied showed moderate to strong positive gains on student achievement tests in language arts and/or reading, engagement in school, sense of educational accomplishment and homework completion (Weiler, et. al., 1998).
  • Service-learning participation was associated with higher scores on the state test of basic skills (Anderson, et. al., 1991) and higher grades (Shumer, 1994; Shaffer, 1993; Dean and Murdock, 1992; O’Bannon, 1999).
  • Eighty-three percent of schools with service-learning programs reported that grade point averages of participating service-learning students improved 76 percent of the time (Follman, 1999).
  • Middle and high school students who participated in service-learning tutoring programs increased their grade point averages and test scores in reading/language arts and math and were less likely to drop out of school (Supik, 1996; Rolzinski, 1990).
  • Elementary and middle school students who participated in service-learning had improved problem-solving skills and increased interest in academics (Stephens, 1995).

Students who participate in service-learning are more engaged in their studies and more motivated to learn.

  • Students who participated in high quality service-learning programs showed an increase in measures of school engagement and achievement in mathematics than control groups (Melchior, 1999).
  • Students who engaged in service-learning came to class on time more often, completed more classroom tasks and took the initiative to ask questions more often (Loesch-Griffin, et. al., 1995).

Service-learning is associated with increased student attendance.

  • Schools that sponsor service-learning programs reported that attendance increased every year over a three-year period of time (Follman, 1998; 1999; O’Bannon, 1999).
  • Students engaged in service-learning had higher attendance rates than control group peers (Shaffer, 1993; Supik, 1996; Shumer, 1994).

IV. The Impact on Career Exploration and Aspirations

Service-learning helps students to become more knowledgeable and realistic about careers.

  • Students who participated in service-learning reported gaining career skills, communication skills and positive increases in career exploration knowledge (Berkas, 1997; Billig, et. al., 1999).
  • Students who engaged in high quality service-learning programs developed positive work orientation attitudes and skills (Weiler, LaGoy, Crane and Rovner, 1998).
  • Teachers believed that participation in service-learning increases career awareness (Melchior, 1999; Billig and Conrad, 1997).

V. The Impact on Schools

Service-learning results in greater mutual respect of teachers and students.

  • Teachers and students in schools with quality service-learning programs reported an increase in mutual respect (Weiler, et. al., 1998).
  • Service-learning builds cohesiveness and more positive peer relations among students, among teachers and between students and teachers in a school (Weiler, et. al., 1998).

Service-learning improves the overall school climate.

  • Educators and students in schools with strong service-learning programs reported more positive school climate through a feeling of greater connectedness to the school (Billig and Conrad, 1997; Weiler, et. al., 1999) and through decreased teacher turnover and increased teacher collegiality (Weiler, et. al., 1999).

VI. The Impact on Communities

Service-learning leads to more positive perceptions of school and youth by community members.

  • Community members who participate in service-learning as partners with the school see youth as valued resources and positive contributors to the community (Billig and Conrad, 1997; 1999; Weiler, et. al., 1999; Melchior, 1999; Kingland, et. al., 1995; Kinsley, 1997).

This research brief was developed by Shelley H. Billig, Ph.D., RMC Research Corporation, Denver, CO, as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Learning In Deed Initiative. A full bibliography is available here:

Service-Learning Bibliography

Akujobi, C. & Simmons, R. (Winter, 1997). An Assessment of Elementary School Service-Learning Teaching Methods: Using Service-Learning Goals. NSEE Quarterly, 23(2), 19-28.

Allen, J.P., Kuperminc, G., Philliber, S. & Herre, K. (1994). Programmatic Prevention of Adolescent Problem Behaviors: The Role of Autonomy, Relatedness, and Volunteer Service in the Teen Outreach Program. Journal of Community Psychology, 22, 617-638.

Alliance for Service-Learning in Educational Reform (1995). Standards for School-Based and Community-Based Service-Learning Programs. Alexandria, VA: Close-Up Foundation.

Anderson, V., Kinsley, C., Negroni, P. & Price, C. (1991). Community Service-Learning and School Improvement in Springfield, Massachusetts. Phi Delta Kappan, 72, June, 761-764.

APCO Associates (1999). Perceptions: Understanding and Responding to What People Think About Service-Learning. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Barber, B. (1993). A Mandate for Liberty In S. Sagawa & S. Halperin (Eds.), Vision of Service: The Future of the National and Community Service Act. Washington, DC: National Women’s Law Center and American Youth Policy Forum.

Benard, B. (1990). Youth Service: From Youth as Problems to Youth as Resources. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Berkas, T. (February, 1997). Strategic Review of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s Service-Learning Projects,1990-1996. Battle Creek, MI: W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

Bhaerman, R., Cordell, K. & Gomez, B. (1998). The Role of Service-Learning in Educational Reform. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Experiential Education and Needham, MA: Simon and Shuster, Inc.

Billig, S. & Conrad, J. (1997). An Evaluation of the New Hampshire Service-Learning and Educational Reform Project. Denver, CO: RMC Research.

Billig, S., Jesse, D., Calvert, L., & Kleimann, K. (1999). An Evaluation of Jefferson County School District’s School-to-Career Partnership Program. Denver, CO: RMC Research.

Billig, S. & Kraft, N. (1998). Linking Federal Programs and Service-Learning: A Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation Guide. Lancaster, PA: Technomics Publishers.

Blyth, D., Saito, R. & Berkas, T. (1997). Quantitative Study of Service-Learning. In A. Waterman (Ed.), Service Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. Cited in Perry, J. (1999). The Grantmakers’ Forum Community and National Service Research Task Force Report. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.

Boyte, H.C. (1991). Community Service and Civic Education. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 765-767.

Butera, G., Phillips, R., Harper S. & Pae, H. (April, 1999). The Lessons of Energy Express for Service-Learning. West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV: paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada.

Cairn, R. (1992). Another Way of Learning. Generator, Spring, 22-23.

Cairn, R. (February, 2000). Standardized Test Scores Improve with Service-Learning. Civic Literacy Project. Bloomington, IN: Civic Literacy Project.

Conrad, D. & Hedin, D. (1991). School-based Community Service: What We Know from Research and Theory. Phi Delta Kappan, June, 743-749.

Corporation for National Service (1990). National and Community Service Act of 1990.

Council of Chief State School Officers (1994). The Service-Learning Planning and Resource Guide. Washington, DC: Author.

Council of Chief State School Officers (August, 1996). Connecting School-to-Work Initiatives and Service-Learning. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Courneya, J. (1994). An Evaluation of the Native American School’s Water Quality Testing Program. In M. Neal, R. Shumer & K. Gorak (Eds.), Evaluation: The Key to Improving Service-Learning Programs. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Department of Education and the University of Minnesota.

Dean, L. & Murdock, S. (1992). The Effect of Voluntary Service on Adolescent Attitudes Toward Learning. Journal of Volunteer Administration, Summer, 5-10.

Duckenfield, M. & Swanson, L. (1992). Service-Learning: Meeting the Needs of Youth at Risk. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center.

Eccles, J. & Barber, B. (1993). Student Council, Volunteering, Basketball, or Marching Band: What Kind of Extracurricular Involvement Matters?. Journal of Adolescent Research, 14(1), 10-43.

Eyler, J. & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Follman, J. (August, 1998). Florida Learn and Serve: 1996-97 Outcomes and Correlations with 1994-95 and 1995-96. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, Center for Civic Education and Service.

Ford, L. (1995). Active Citizenship Today: Final Evaluation Report. Cited in J. Perry (1999). The Grantmakers’ Forum Community and National Service Research Task Force Report. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.

Furco, A. (1996). Service-Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education. In B. Taylor (Ed.), Expanding Boundaries: Serving and Learning. Washington, DC: Corporation for National Service.

Goodlad, J. (1998). Schools for All Seasons. Phi Delta Kappan, May, 670-671.

Hamilton, S.F. & Hamilton, M.A. (1994). Opening Career Paths for Youth: What Can Be Done? Who Can Do It? Washington, DC: Youth Policy Forum.

Howe, H. (1997). Acting and Understanding What Service-Learning Adds to Our Academic Future. Education Week, 56.

Kingsland, S. F., Richards, M. & Coleman, L. (1995). A Status Report for KIDSNET, Year One, 1994-1995. Portland, ME: University of Southern Maine.

Kinsley, C. (Oct. 1997). Service-Learning: A Process to Connect Learning and Living. In Service-Learning: Leaving Footprints on the Planet. National Association of Secondary School Principals Bulletin, 1-7.

Kinsley, C. (1997b). Elementary School Programs. In R. Wade (Ed.), Community Service Learning: A Guide to Including Service in the Public School Curriculum. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Leming, J. (1998). Adding Value to Service-Learning Projects. Insights on Global Ethics, Autumn, 7.

Loesch-Griffin, D., Petrides, L.A. & Pratt, C. (1995). A Comprehensive Study of Project YES- Rethinking Classrooms and Community: Service-Learning as Educational Reform. San Francisco, CA: East Bay Conservation Corps.

Melchior, A. (1999). Summary Report: National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America. Waltham, MA: Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University.

Morgan, W. & Streb, M. (1999). How Quality Service-Learning Develops Civic Values. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

National Service-Learning Cooperative (April, 1998). Essential Elements of Service-Learning. St. Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.

O’Bannon, F. (1999). Service-Learning Benefits Our Schools. State Education Leader, 17, 3.

O’Donnell, L., Stueve, A., San Doval, A., Duran, R., Haber, D., Atnafou, R., Johnson, N., Grant, U., Murray, H., Juhn, G., Tang, J. & Piessens, P. (1999). The Effectiveness of the Reach for Health Community Youth Service Learning Program in Reducing Early and Unprotected Sex Among Urban Middle School Students. American Journal of Public Health, 89(2), 176-181.

Owens, T. & Wang, C. (1997). Community-Based Learning: A Foundation for Meaningful Educational Reform. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Pickeral, T. (1998). An Evaluation of Six K-12 Service-Learning Programs in Oregon and Washington. Denver, CO: Author.

Ridgell, C. (1994). Students’ Perceptions Before and After Student Service-Learning. College Park, MD: University of Maryland. Cited in Perry, J. (1999). The Grantmakers’ Forum Community and National Service Research Task Force Report. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.

Rolzinski, C. (1990). The Adventure of Adolescence: Middle School Students and Community Service. Washington, DC: Youth Service America.

Sandler, L. & Vandegrift, J. (1994). Students Serving Arizona: 1994 Serve-America Evaluation Report. Cited in J. Perry (1999). The Grantmakers’ Forum Community and National Service Research Task Force Report. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.

Sax, L.J. & Astin, A.W. (1997). The Benefits of Service: Evidence from Undergraduates. Educational Record, Summer-Fall, 25-33.

Scales, P. & Blyth, D. (1997). Effects of Service-Learning on Youth: What We Know and What We Need to Know. Generator, Winter, 6-9.

Shaffer, B. (1993). Service-Learning: An Academic Methodology. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Department of Education. Cited in R. Bhaerman, K. Cordell, & B. Gomez (1998). The Role of Service-Learning in Educational Reform. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Experiential Education and Needham, MA: Simon and Shuster, Inc.

Shumer, R. (1994). Community-Based Learning: Humanizing Education. Journal of Adolescence, 17(4), 357-367.

Sigmon, R. (1994). Serving to Learn, Learning to Serve. Linking Service with Learning, report for the Council for Independent Colleges.

Skinner, R. & Chapman, C. (September, 1999). Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

Stephens, L. (1995). The Complete Guide to Learning Through Community Service, Grades K-9. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Supik, J. (1996). Valued Youth Partnerships: Programs in Caring. San Antonio, TX: Intercultural Research and Development Association.

Switzer, G., Simmons, R., Dew, M., Regalski, J. & Wang, C. (1995). The Effect of a School-Based Helper Program on Adolescent Self-Image, Attitudes, and Behavior. Journal of Early Adolescence, 15, 429-455.

Toole, J. & Toole, P. (1992) Key Definitions: Commonly Used Terms in the Youth Service Field. Roseville, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.

Weiler, D., LaGoy, A., Crane, E. & Rovner, A. (1998). An Evaluation of K-12 Service-Learning in California: Phase II Final Report. Emeryville, CA: RPP International with the Search Institute.

Westheimer, J. & Kahne, J. (2000). Report to the Surdna Board-D.V.I. New York: Surdna Foundation.

Yates, M. & Youniss, J. (1997). Community Service and Political Identity Development in Adolescence. Journal of Social Issues, 54(3), 495-512.

Yates, M. & Youniss, J. (1996a). Perspective on Community Service in Adolescence. Social Development, 5, 85-111.

Yates, M. & Youniss, J. (1996b). Community Service and Political-Moral Identity in Adolescents. Journal of Research in Adolescence, 6(3), 271-284. Cited in J. Perry (1999). The Grantmakers’ Forum Community and National Service Research Task Force Report. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana.

Youniss, J., McLellan, I.A., & Yates, M. (1997). What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity. American Behavioral Scientist, 40, 620-631.

April 17, 2002

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