Sunday, March 13, 2011

Community Service as a Graduation Requirement

A couple of staff meetings ago, the idea was floated that we should consider adding to student graduation requirements by requiring some form of community service. Some schools have a senior "project" or "thesis" requirement, we'd have proof of "helping others".

I have several problems with such a requirement, these being separated into the theoretical and the practical realms.

My first issue is that community service, unless imposed by a court, is voluntary. That's why it's called "service". If you compel people to do it, how is it different from involuntary servitude? People's best work comes when they want to do something, not when they're forced to do something. What lesson would we be teaching students by requiring them to perform unpaid, involuntary labor as a requirement for graduation?

Our PTSA was really big on the movie Race To Nowhere, in which parents and teachers are encouraged not to require so much of students. They paid for the required teacher screening at a staff meeting a few months ago. The movie encourages teachers not to give homework because the stress causes some students to kill themselves. It was an emotionally-driven movie, as you might imagine, and of course many teachers watched it and were convinced that every moment on the screen was gospel truth. If that's the case, then, why add yet another requirement for students?

My last big picture point is simply, under what authority do we lay claim to students' off-school time and behavior? I've been exceedingly consistent on this point here at RotLC--what students do on their own time is no business of the school's, unless and until it effects events at school. Unlike homework, community service has no direct impact on what happens at school and serves no immediate purpose other than requiring students to give up their off-campus time.

Those are my "ideological" problems with the requirement. Now let's move on to the practical problems regarding implementation of such a requirement.

The most obvious problem would be, what constitutes community service? We have school programs that already have community service as a requirement, would those students be able to "double-dip"? How would we determine which organizations or efforts are "worthy" enough to merit credit for community service? Eagle Scout projects--another "double dipping", or would they meet the requirement? What about students who have jobs in order to help support their families? What about scholar athletes--football, basketball, baseball--aren't they doing enough at/for school yet?

Even if we could legitimately answer the questions above, the next problem is, how would we track this requirement? This is a large paperwork burden for something that doesn't even relate to school.

And what would we do with students who transfer into our school as seniors? How do we impose this requirement on them?

The conclusion that I'm drawn to after posing all these questions is that we'd end up so diluting this requirement as to make it essentially worthless--in which case I'd have to ask why we'd want to impose it in the first place.

What draws people to want to enforce community service on others? Are we somehow trying to promote civic engagement, however we define that? Do we somehow think it will make our students "better people"? On what evidence do we believe this? I ask not only to see if there's a logical, rather than an "I just feeeeeel", answer, but also in response to this article:

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute just released Enlightened Citizenship: How Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree in Promoting Active Civic Engagement, which shows that college has zero positive influence in encouraging graduates to become politically engaged — although many universities promote that in mission statements.

If we accept that thesis as true, that just getting an education doesn't promote civic engagement but that "civic knowledge" does, how do we impart "civic knowledge"? The stone has to skip over the pond many times to get from helping at a soup kitchen, for example, to civic knowledge to civic engagement, and many of those skips are genuine leaps of faith.

Notice I haven't even addressed whether it's the school's or the family's place in society to teach civic values, but you know where I come down on this point.

If your school has a community service requirement, please leave a comment explaining what its purpose is and how it's implemented.

Update, 8/27/2013:   Another good reason not to do this:
Maryland’s community service requirement — high school students must complete 75 hours to earn a diploma — may reduce their later volunteering, according to a new study. The mandate increased volunteering by 8th graders, but decreased it for 12th graders, concludes Involuntary Volunteering. Instead of creating lifelong service, the graduation requirement may discourage voluntary volunteering.


Curmudgeon said...

I am against voluntyrrany. My school attempts it and fails. My son's school attempts it and fails.

By fail, I mean that the kids who don't want to do it will cheat, lie, and be a pain in the ass the whole time and learn nothing and change nothing. Supervisors are unhappy with the result. The kids who would have done volunteering without the requirement will volunteer with the requirement but report that the whole process is cheapened and actually wind up doing less than they would otherwise.

"If you do it for the reward and recognition, you can't afford it. If you do it for the enjoyment, the reward and recognition comes free of charge."

Rhymes With Right said...

There's also this little thing in the US Constitution:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction Not to mention Article I, Section 6 of the California Constitution.

Do such programs constitute involuntary servitude if imposed as a condition of receiving a high school diploma?

Pomoprophet said...

Oh please... involuntary servitude? I guess parents cant make their children do chores either without pay. While we're at it, lets unionize them to make sure they're payed a fair wage for those chores.

Teennagers are by nature selfish. "Forcing" them to do community service may open them up to experiences and opportunities they might not otherwise have. If community service is "unpaid, involuntary labor" then so is anything else we ask them to do. But we ask them to do lots. As part of their learning process.

"Unlike homework, community service has no direct impact on what happens at school and serves no immediate purpose" Learning to do things for others has no immediate purpose or direct impact? I sure hope thats not what you're teaching your son or your students. We should be educating the whole child. Not micromanaging their lives or dictating what they can/t eat or do. But teaching them how to be healthy and how to give back to society is just as important as the math facts you teach.

Darren said...

Wow, your leaps of logic would make Superman proud.

Yes, requiring people to work unpaid is involuntary servitude. If you want to equate parents/chores with government schools, go ahead--and in fact I think that's your fatal flaw. There is a major difference between the two; community service is rightly the purview of the parents and *not* the school.

We in schools should focus on what is *our* responsibility and not try to *raise* other people's children.

Anonymous said...

Darren: "What draws people to want to enforce community service on others?"

Robert A. Heinlein: "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number."

I think the basic (idealistic) assumption by the people who favor this is that the students who are forced to provide community service will become better citizens because of it.

My guess is that they are making a correlation-causation mistake. The sorts of people who voluntarily perform community service often *ARE* better citizens, but not *because* of the community service.

We do this with algebra ... kids who learn algebra in 8th grade go to college at higher rates than those who do not. Therefore, we will require all kids to learn algebra in 8th grade. This will increase the college attendance rate. Well ... no, it won't.

About a decade ago we were doing this with book. Kids raised in a house with more than 100 books did better in school. The trick, obviously, was to send books to the houses of those kids who did not already have them ...


My brother's high school (Jesuit run, so private) added a community service requirement 1/2 way through his attendance. He (a) felt that he had been misled, as they were changing the rules in mid-stream, and (b) decided that poor people [at the food kitchen] suck. I'm suspect that this was not the lesson that the folks who added this program were hoping he would learn.

Finally, in response to "Teennagers are by nature selfish." Well, yes. Yes, they are. As are many other adults. I'd be more okay with this requirement if we also added it as a requirement to vote. No 100 hours of community service per year, no right to vote. If you are so selfish that you won't do the 100 hours, you are clearly not responsible enough to vote. I doubt that this would pass a popular vote. It is much easier to impose requirements on *other* people.

-Mark Roulo

Darren said...

Well said, Mark.

Pomoprophet said...

Schools require students to do lots of things. Why is school work acceptable? Homework? Studying for tests? Sure they don't have to do those things but then they don't graduate.

Like it or not academics do not exist in a vacuum. We can't do *our* responsibilities fully while ignoring everything else in life. Otherwise why are we offering student government, the arts, athletics and any non-academic clubs? Those aren't mandatory (except fine arts) but they also aren't *our* responsibility. Do you support getting rid of those too?

Suzanne said...

Pennsylvania public schools require high school students to complete a graduation project in order to graduate. Students have to log 40 hours of work on the project, write a paper, and present. I'm pretty sure that all or most schools have volunteering for those 40 hours as an option, but some schools have volunteering as the only option. My alma mater have volunteering as an option, but I've been hearing that they're pushing volunteering more than the other two options. As someone who used to volunteer and did not volunteer for her graduation project, I think forced volunteering is probably the worst way to try to get people involved in the community. It'll be seen as a chore to some.

Darren said...

Pomo, I've just gotta ask--what *good* do you think will come from requiring teenagers to do *unpaid* work that they don't want to do?

BTW, those other things you mentioned? Done *at school*. Big difference.

Steve USMA '85 said...

Maryland requires 10 hours of community service to graduate.

Problem I have with the system is that in middle school, the school runs a food drive every year. If a child is in the middle school one year for this food drive, he gets credit for 10 hours of community service. Even if they don't bring in a single can of food. If they are in the school, it is thought they see the 'benefit' of community service and thus get full credit. It is a joke to say the least.

If someone transfers in to the system after middle school, then they have to do some actual real community service. Get paperwork signed at the local charity of their choice that they helped for their 10 hours.

Now comes the twist that I believe you will really like. It is considered the school system's responsibility to ensure the student has an opportunity to do their community service. If the student is proactive and volunteers at the location of their choice, fine. However, if the student goes to the school and says they don't have a place to volunteer, the school has to come up with an opportunity for them. (This, by the way, is the reason for the middle school food drive. It is the opportunity en masse.) So the newcomer to high school goes to the office and they use him after school to file papers in the office or run errands during his free period to get to his ten hours by serving the school.

The program in general is a joke and very little is learned by the students in my opinion. I had three children go through the system and even they have told me it is a joke, simply a check-the-block exercise.

Pomoprophet said...

so if the community service was done "at school" you'd be supportive?

Unknown said...

@ Steve, actually I think the requirement for community service in Maryland is 75 hours (source: That is a significant requirement, but whether it is useful or not is unclear.

As for the Constitutional "involuntary servitude" argument--never going to pass muster. First, it is couched as a requirement for a high school diploma--which is vastly different from involuntary servitude. The legal rationale is simple, if you want the diploma--this is a requirement. A person is not entitled to a high school diploma by the fact of their mere existence. That is the exchange--just like the requirement for four years of English instruction or three years of math or 2 years of a foreign language. Believe, for some students either of those subject might be considered involuntary servitude.

Of course, that is not to say that I am a big fan of a service learning requirement. Yes, it MAY expose the youngster to something different from their normal life. But that is an assumption that is not backed up by hard data.

My biggest complaint is the definition of "acceptable" community service. Someone has to decide that and that standard is purely subjective. I can make a straight faced argument that a teenager who officiates or helps coach a sports team is performing a community service just as much as a kid who is serving lunches at a soup kitchen or swinging a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity project. But I can guarantee you that a student will not get credit for the former but will get credit for the latter.

Finally, community service is something that should remain voluntary and outside the school. There are many, many, many things competing for a child's attention. Why add another worry to their graduation stress when they should be focused on academics and doing those things that make them happy (to a certain extent).

Darren said...

My school already has myriad opportunities for public service, be they clubs or specific programs (course progressions). Since those are all voluntary, I have no problem with them.

Requiring community service, especially at school would of necessity devolve into what Steve described above--so no, I would not support it.

But since you're so hip on requiring service, perhaps we should consider bringing back the draft....

Anonymous said...

If we bring back the draft, I want it to be random and for people in the 30 - 45 year old range. None of this nonsense of older people supporting a draft of 18 year olds.

And I'm in the 30-45 range.

-Mark Roulo

Darren said...

I don't support a draft at all, Mark. But if Pomo doesn't, I'm curious why.

Funny about Money said...

My son went to a Jesuit high school, too, and that school also had a community service requirement. For us that was OK, because we were paying to have him go there and one of the things we were paying for was to have the Jesuits to instill some values, one of which was an ethic of community service.

However, in the public schools, the colleges, and the universities, it's another matter altogether.

For a time, the university where I taught seriously considered requiring service learning, even in majors where community service was irrelevant. Fine, if you want social work, education, or sociology majors to go out and perform community service work as part of the curriculum. But how exactly does such activity contribute to a strong grasp of, say, mathematics, English literature, or accountancy?

Rather than requiring this kind of unpaid labor, it would be far preferable to offer rewards such as public recognition, extra credit, or special credits toward graduation. You can't force altruism.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that everyone has an opinion on the subject, but speaking from personal experience with having to fulfill the community service requirement 20 years ago, it's a good thing (was and still is!) and you should stop bitching - it benefits the community, it benefits the individual and it introduces teens to the opportunities around them to give back and care for others in their community. No, not all teens will walk away with a passion for service; however, it gives them a reason to explore the opportunities to be part of something bigger than a shallow existence (which they might not otherwise) - call it career planning, life prep, character building...everyone has their own take but over a 4 year education 40 hours is a drop in the hat but can really plant a seed of selflessness that can blossom into something grand later....philanthropy. There is nothing wrong with instilling a culture of taking pride and participating hands on in the community. The "potential" benefits are great and my children, in a completely different school district than I was, also have a community service requirement and they embrace it because they expect it - it is a stepping stone to achieving their diploma and no different than any other school requirement with the exception that it benefits both them and whatever organization they chose to volunteer for - and it is a choice....they chose where, who, how much time and they can also chose not to do it at all, which, like every other choice comes with a consequence. In this case, not receiving a diploma. It's essentially a classroom outside of the classroom and what they are learning may impact different teens in different ways but I have yet to encounter a teen who was traumatized by or damaged by a measly 10 hours a year working with kids, elderly, people in need. Yeah, sounds terrible! It feels good to volunteer - try it!

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to say that the lessons learned in high school aren't always immediate. I can think of many, many things that I swore had no value in my microscopic world when I was a child and a teen that later, when I realized that life was larger than my block and my Christmas list, I look back upon fondly and appreciate. My grandma drug me door to door selling candy bars and I begged her not to. She never MADE me sell them, but when I asked her to help me, boy, did she ever...overkill. I recall complaining (not even aware that I had brought it upon myself by asking to participate in the sale in the first place!). I realize now, the only reason that I was complaining is because I wanted to win the prizes and participate in the mission to help raise money for the school in theory but when it came time to do the WORK, put the effort and dedication necessary to make any sort of impact on the mission I took on, I was too tired, too bothered, too interested in something else. Yeah, I still look back on that and thing dang, my grandma was a workhorse and she really pushed me hard...but I look around and see selfish people all around me and I think how unfortunate that more kids didn't have a grandma like mine! My drive, my work ethic, my appreciation for people who give whatever tasks they take on their all instead of doing things half a$$ and waiting for someone else to come along and finish what they are too lazy, too above, too annoyed to do...all stems from "selling candy". I had no value for it then, but I sure enjoyed the scooter I won. The lesson extended beyond that moment and I think that is the point of community service - it makes me laugh how some people say "my teen even said it had no value". To that I say "DUH". Ask your teen if they value cleaning up after themselves...if they enjoy having to wash the car or pay to put gas in the thing (but I bet they really value driving) adults we are supposed to see the value in things that our children can't and encourage them towards those things.

Darren said...

You make my point for me, anonymous. Your *grandmother*, your family, instilled this in you, *not* your government via the school. BIG difference.

Anonymous said...

I am currently a high school student with a 40 hour requirement to receive my high school diploma. Do I believe in the positive effects of participating in community service? Of course, it helps to build character. Do I believe that it should be mandatory to graduate? Absolutely not. When community service is forced upon a teenager it takes away the skills that they are suppossed to be learning by giving back to the community. Instead of enjoying what they're doing and gaining a sense of pride in themselves they walk away dreding the entire experience making them even less encouraged to volunteer again. Schools should promote service not enforce if.

Destiny said...

This is a one time comment from a teenager in high school. For the person who mentioned chores. I HATE chores when i come home from school i do chores. I pretty much do them all day people feel bad for me. My mother wants me to do chores even after I've already cleaned up and something has gotten dirty after. i feel like i work and i'm not even the one who messes up stuff.

Required volunteer work: what does that even have to do with school?!? you guys are mentioning things that have nothing to do with volunteer work. Parents and schools want teenagers to do volunteer work but about 50% of the parents or staff in these schools wouldn't do it themselves or have even thought about doing it. As a cancer i have a big heart, maternal instincts, and always help people as much as possible. schools don't count friends or family as volunteer work. Students should do it willingly, if they choose, and should not be forced to complete one hundred hours. When i do work for people the only thing that comes from it is a good feeling within myself, but i get that everyday just being the kind of person that i am. you don't receive recognition or money from doing that so why would a teenager do it especially being forced. Does anyone in the world like doing something that they didn't take upon themselves to do and enjoy doing it because that's what they want to do. I guarantee you 70% of volunteer work isn't remembered if it wasn't something big no one actually cares but the person being helped.