Skip Navigation

Student Participation in Community Service Activity / Chapter 1


Increasing community service participation has long been a goal in the United States. Some examples of how this goal has played out in national policy are President Kennedy's creation of the Peace Corps, President Bush's creation of the Points of Light Foundation, President Clinton's creation of AmeriCorps, and Congress' adoption of the National Education Goals, which include the objective that all students will be involved in activities that promote and demonstrate good citizenship and community service. In part, the push for volunteer service reflects the idea that the act of volunteering would be beneficial to those who participate and might counteract feelings of cynicism and apathy, as well as the notion that volunteers are needed if national problems are to be addressed with limited government resources. As in the National Education Goals, youth are often made a special focus because they are at a time in their lives when their attitudes are still being formed so volunteer service might have greater effect. In that context, volunteer service has also been seen as a tool for teachers to build interest in classwork and thus becomes an aspect of education reform.

While volunteer service is widely accepted as desirable, there is a debate over how best to encourage it. This debate influences the field of education in a number of ways, including the types of volunteer policies schools develop. These policies can range from requiring service of all students, to arranging service for interested students, to doing nothing to encourage service. Some schools try to incorporate student service experiences into class work, while others do not.

This report examines data from the 1996 National Household Education Survey, Youth Civic Involvement component, in which students in grades 6 through 12 were asked about their participation in community service activities. Additionally, youth were asked about some of the ways that schools might encourage community service participation and integrate it with classroom learning. From these data, one can examine the relationship between community service participation and school practices, as reported by the students. The data also provide information about how participation in community service activities is related to student, family, community, and school characteristics.

Previous Research

Proposals that community service should be an integral aspect of education have been part of the American educational debate since the early years of this century, sometimes capturing the public attention and sometimes receding in importance (Barber 1992; Conrad and Hedin 1991; Boyer 1983; Kraft 1996). Proponents emphasize the potential benefits of community service in terms of linking the school to the community and providing students with an opportunity for experiential learning (Kraft 1996). Properly implemented, community service also may reduce the alienation from society that adolescents often experience, help young people to develop community-oriented attitudes, and encourage them to become engaged in democratic processes, such as voting, when they are young adults (Calabrese and Schumer 1986; Conrad and Hedin 1991; Kraft 1996). When integrated into the curriculum, community service is a strategy for preventing school dropouts and improving the transition from school to work (Shumer 1994; Gomez 1996; Scales and Blyth 1997).

Studies of the effects of community service programs indicate that they can have important and measurable positive outcomes for high school students. For instance, in a study of 10 programs, participating students were found to have experienced more psychological, social, and intellectual growth than nonparticipating students (Conrad and Hedin 1982). Another study reported that students who did volunteer work developed a more socially responsible perspective than students who did not participate in volunteer activities (Hamilton and Fenzel 1988). In a related study of over 2,000 K-12 students from 24 schools, University of Wisconsin researchers found improved student performance resulted from active learning such as service-learning if combined with high intellectual content (Newman, Markes, and Gamoran 1995). A quantitative evaluation of a community-based learning program for 9th through 12th grade students, which incorporated participation in service activities in the community, showed a positive effect on students' grades and attendance, both of which were related to academic achievement and retention in school (Shumer 1994). Studies of college undergraduates have shown specific cognitive development, especially an increase in awareness of the multidimensionality of social problems and community-oriented decision making, as an outcome of participation in community service (Batchelder and Root 1994), as well as increased personal efficacy, commitment to future service, and recognition of the importance of influencing the political system to ameliorate social problems (Giles and Eyler 1994).

To encourage greater participation in community service and service learning, the state of Maryland and some school districts have instituted mandatory service requirements in public schools. In some instances this decision has provoked initial opposition from members of the academic community and from some parts of the general public who view mandatory community service as involuntary labor that students may resent and that would increase the cost of education (Short Sentence 1992; Goldsmith 1995). However, in recent years, more education leaders have recognized the academic benefits to students of integrating community service activities into the classroom. This has come to be known as service-learning. The Commission on National and Community Service (now the Corporation for National Service) defines service-learning as an educational experience that, among other things, is integrated "into the student's academic curriculum or provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity" (Commission on National and Community Service 1993). Involving America's students in community service activities is one of the first objectives that was established under one of the National Education Goals for the year 2000, that of preparing students for responsible citizenship, but national data on the percentage of youth who participate in community service are sparse. Most estimates of the participation of adults and youth in community service have been based on institutional surveys; however, it is difficult to capture through institutional surveys the number of students who engage in community service activities, particularly those who do not participate through school programs and those who participate in programs that do not receive external funding (Kraft 1996). A notable exception is a set of national surveys sponsored by Independent Sector that examine volunteering and giving among teenagers/1/.

Data Sources and Indicators

The National Household Education Survey (NHES), a large national study of adults and youth conducted by Westat for the , provides data to meet this research need. In 1996, following screening interviews conducted in 55,708 households, telephone interviews were conducted with 2,250 randomly sampled adults, 20,792 parents of children age 3 through 12, and 8,043 students in grades 6 through 12. This report is based primarily on data collected from the students/2/. A more detailed discussion of survey methodology, including response rates and data reliability, can be found in the section on survey methodology.

Each student was asked whether he or she had participated in any community service activity during the current school year. The activity could have been associated with the student's school, service sponsored by another social institution such as a church or synagogue, or volunteer work in which the student participated on his or her own. Service programs vary widely in nature, from one-time opportunities to clean up a park or contribute canned food to a weekly commitment to tutor other students or visit senior citizens. The NHES:96 captured an aspect of this variation by asking students if their community service activities happened once or twice during the school year or on a regular basis. To help analyze student involvement in service-learning, students who said they participated in community service were asked whether they had a chance to talk about their service activity in class, whether they were required to write about the experience, or whether participation in the activity contributed to their grade in a class. These basic reflection activities characterize what are considered best practices for service-learning (Honnet and Paulson 1989; Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform 1993; Cairn and Kielsmeier 1991). Students who said that they had not yet participated in a service activity during the current school year were asked whether they would participate in a service activity sometime before the end of the current school year. All students, regardless of their participation status, were asked whether their schools arranged for student service activities or provided service opportunities at schools/3/. In a separate question youth were asked if their school required students to participate in community service (e.g., in order to graduate). All students also were asked if they thought they would be doing any kind of community service in the next year.


[1] These surveys are titled Volunteering and Giving Among American Teenagers, 1992 and Volunteering and Giving Among American Teenagers, 1996.

[2]\ Youth who were schooled at home were not included in this analysis because they were not asked many of the items that are central to this report.
[3] No distinction was made in the questionnaire between these two related ways of encouraging student participation. Thus, throughout this report references to arranging activities also includes providing them.

ContentsTable of Contents NextChapter 2. Level of Participation