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Is Community Service a Waste of Time?


Many educators use the terms community service and service learning interchangeably. They are two very different concepts, though. What is the difference? Should your students participate in one or the other? Included: Education World talks to the experts about what it takes to create a real service-learning project -- if that's possible.

Be sure to see additional articles in
Education World's Service Learning Archive.
In July, for the third time this decade, the people of Waverly, Iowa, pulled together to fight floods that ravaged many of their neighbors' homes. Teacher Jean Byl was among those who helped to sandbag the raging floodwaters. As people worked, Byl could not help but notice

"As we were sandbagging, there were many kids who were working like troopers in the 95-degree heat," Byl recalled. "When the sand was gone, they took off to nearby homes to help move things from people's basements. When the next load of sand arrived, they were back to fill bags."

While that was going on, Byl also noticed that many other curious kids just stood along the sidelines or rode by on their bikes. When people asked the kids to pitch in, they just took off.

"Those were the same kids who live on the 'fringes' of our school community," noted Byl. "Many of them have no other solid community -- family or church, for example -- to which they belong. I imagine volunteering is not something that they see modeled."

It was clear to Byl that the responsibility for modeling service and volunteer behaviors for those kids must be the responsibility of the school. Where else might they pick it up? Byl started thinking about how to give kids genuine -- not artificially contrived -- experiences.

Many educators are thinking about the same problem.


Many educators use the terms community service and service learning interchangeably. That's a mistake. They are two very different activities. Throw the idea of volunteerism into the mix and you have three very different things, says Laurel Singleton, editor of Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: A Resource Book, published by the Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC).

"We define community service as volunteering in the community for some form of extrinsic reward, such as fulfilling a graduation requirement or obtaining class credit," Singleton told Education World. "Service learning, in contrast, is a teaching method that combines academic content with direct service experiences in which students provide genuine service to their school or community while extending or deepening their understanding of curricular content."

Arden Moon, a professor of education at Michigan State University, has written extensively about service learning. "Service learning is learning experientially through structured integration of service and subject matter that is part of a planned curriculum," Moon told Education World.

"If service learning is structured correctly, it is academically demanding and provides opportunities to learn about social development and citizenship," Moon wrote in a recent issue of Schools in the Middle. "It also prepares students for the work world by teaching them teamwork, problem solving, about diversity, and interpersonal skills. The service-learning experience becomes a source of knowledge."

Assessment is an important element of service learning, Moon told Education World. "The teacher should provide assessment of students' service-learning activities to validate the level of academic achievement. If service learning is part of the curriculum, then the assessment of service learning is not separated from assessment of the subject content for the class. If assessment is done correctly, the criticism that service learning is servitude or fluff in the school curriculum becomes defused."

"My strong stand about service learning being academically sound does not mean there isn't a place for community service," Moon said. "Applying our knowledge to issues in the community and helping meet community needs are all important, but they shouldn't be seen as the sum total of service or as a pedagogy."

Service learning can strengthen students' ties to and understanding of their community, according to Moon. "Some of the understandings, values, and commitments we espouse for our students remain rhetoric if students have few opportunities to live those beliefs," he said.

Service learning can benefit schools in other ways too. According to a recent study by Florida Learn and Serve, students who were actively involved in service-learning projects showed improved attendance, fewer referrals for discipline problems, and improved grades.


The Social Science Education Consortium (SSEC) conducted a series of summer institutes for teachers in 1996 and 1997. The institutes, funded by the Corporation for National Service, brought together teams of teachers from selected schools. The teachers received in-depth training on the design and implementation of service learning. After their training, teachers could ask for given time and assistance as they developed units that integrated service learning into their academic curriculums. The result was more than a dozen units, published by SSEC in Service Learning in the Middle School Curriculum: A Resource Book and a follow-up supplement. Each unit includes detailed descriptions of a service-learning project, related curriculum activities, and assessment strategies.

Earth, Inc., created by teachers at Desert Sky Middle School in Glendale, Arizona, is among the projects published by SSEC. In the scenario presented to Desert Sky students, Earth, Inc. ends its relationship with an advertising agency because the agency hasn't done a good job at getting the conservation word out. People in the area continue to act in ways that threaten the public water supply and local endangered species. Students at Desert Sky were challenged to work in teams to create their own advertising agencies. Each agency would compete for the job of representing Earth, Inc.

The teacher-created curriculum involved students in activities that developed students' understanding of the issues involved while developing math, geography, language, and public-speaking skills. The result: Students created radio and television public service announcements that local stations aired. They distributed brochures through Welcome Wagon to all new residents and homeowners in the community and created posters to display at the Phoenix International Airport.

Assessment tools included pre- and post-project attitudinal and habit surveys, an advertisement rubric, team effectiveness surveys, journal reflections, and daily evaluations of class work.


Alan Haskvitz, a social studies teacher in Walnut, California, takes a stricter view of service learning. "Service learning is a university term that implies that there is a grading rubric because the word learning is involved," Haskvitz told Education World. "I don't know any classroom teachers who can create such an instrument and validate it for every project."

"My students have done some remarkable projects integrating their studies," added Haskvitz, an inductee in the National Teacher Hall of Fame. "They helped cut down on graffiti and helped pass state laws to improve the environment. They worked to improve voter turnout in their county, wrote newsletters for the police department, and developed a Web site to educate people about the dangers of fire ants."

As much as they applied information learned in the classroom to those projects, Haskvitz doesn't feel the projects qualify as "service-learning" projects, because it was not possible to truly validate the learning that occurred.

"I believe that any school or agency that requires a service-learning component must develop a validated way to measure the actual learning that occurs," Haskvitz told Education World.

Regardless, Haskvitz notes, community service activities can be some of the most valuable activities students participate in. "Learning by doing is always a quality method for improving student understanding," he said.


Should community service or service learning be an element of the curriculum of every school? Should it be required for graduation? The debate over those questions goes on.

"I don't object to such requirements, although they are more often community service than service learning," said Laurel Singleton. "We feel that service has greater benefits when it is linked to the curriculum, when students are well prepared for the experience, and when students have a chance to reflect on the service experience. Those factors are missing with many community-service graduation requirements."

"I favor a required service-learning component only if the teacher is trained to use service learning so it is an integrated part of the curriculum, not an add-on to the curriculum," added Arden Moon.

In a recent debate on the issue published in Connecticut's Hartford Courant (12/1/98), two students debated this very question on the paper's op-ed page.

"What is the purpose of community service?" wrote one student. "Is it to increase pride in the community? Is it to increase an individual's sense of accomplishment? Or is it to feel the human connection by helping those in need? Unfortunately, none of this happens when community service is mandated in high school.[Students] can't feel pride in something they don't want to do."

"Requiring community service or granting credit for it does not cheapen it, nor does it lessen the effect of it," another student wrote in a counterpoint editorial. "It gives students who might not have otherwise done so the chance to understand the most important lesson they can learn: that they have power to better their world."


  • Involuntary Volunteers Public schools are starting to require students to serve their communities. Is that too much to ask? This Time magazine article explores the debate over community service.
  • Indicator of the Month: Community Service Participation of Students in Grades 6-12 In 1996 about one half of students in grades 6-12 participated in community service, with 26 percent participating on a regular basis. Students were more likely to participate if their parents did so. Read more stats and information in this report from NCES.
  • National Service-Learning Clearinghouse The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse is a comprehensive information system that focuses on all dimensions of service learning, covering kindergarten through higher education school-based as well as community based initiatives.
  • Service-Learning and Teacher Education This article provides a definition and examples of service learning, examines rationales and approaches, reviews research, and discusses future challenges related to service learning in teacher education.
  • PAL: Peer Assistance and Leadership PALs provide guidance and mentoring for peers and younger children on such issues as self esteem, drug awareness, and social skills. PALs also enrich their communities through service-learning projects and extended volunteer activities.
  • "The Controversy Over Service Learning," NEA Today (September 1997).
  • The Complete Guide to Learning Through Community Service: Grades K-9 by Lillian S. Stephens. This hands-on guide to implementing service learning provides information on planning projects, including hundreds of across-the-curriculum tie-in activities, sample projects, forms, questionnaires, and more.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2004 Education World

Originally published 12/13/1999
Updated 10/15/2008