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Educating for active citizenship: Service-learning, school-based service, and civic engagement.



This brief is the second in the Youth Helping America Series, a series of reports based on data from the Youth Volunteering and Civic Engagement Survey, a national survey of 3,178 American youth between the ages of 12 and 18 that was conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2005 in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau and the nonprofit coalition Independent Sector.
The survey collected information on teen volunteering habits, experiences with school-based service-learning, and other forms of civic engagement. While the first brief in the Youth Helping America Series focused on youth volunteering and social institutions, this brief focuses on participation in school-based service--service opportunities made available or required by schools--among middle school and high school aged youth. We pay particular attention to the extent to which youth participate in service-learning courses, which integrate school-based service opportunities into the academic curriculum such as those programs supported by Learn and Serve America.

By approaching school-based service from the perspectives of youth, it is possible to identify: 1) who among youth participate in school-based service; 2) their perceptions of what they accomplished in the experience; and 3) the relationship between this school-based service and their attitudes and behaviors toward other forms of civic engagement.

According to the survey, 38 percent of youth--or an estimated 10.6 million students nationwide--report current or past participation in community service as part of a school activity or requirement. Of these students, 74 percent, or approximately 7.8 million, are either currently enrolled or were enrolled within the previous year in a course that contains a service component, while 26 percent participated in such a course at some time in the past. High school students are more likely than middle school students to have participated in at least one school-based service experience.

Of all school-based service experiences, more than three-quarters--or 77 percent--take place as part of a course that contains one or more of the generally accepted elements of high-quality service learning. These elements include:

  1. Planning the service activity (36 percent of all courses)
  2. Participating in regular service for a semester or longer (36 percent of all courses)
  3. Writing or reflecting on the service experience in class (51 percent of all courses)

To determine whether youth participated in service learning, as opposed to simply school-based service, we developed a service-learning quality index that counts the number of high quality elements associated with the school-based service experience. Among the students who participate in school-based service, whether currently or some time in the past, we found that 10 percent--or an estimated 1.1 million--participate in service learning with all three of the quality elements, 26 percent with two of the elements, and 41 percent with one of the elements.

While the majority of students report that their experience with school-based service had a positive impact on them, we found that students who report current or past participation in service-learning that includes reflection, planning, and service that lasts at least one semester, are more than twice as likely than students who participate in school-based service with none of the three quality elements to report that their experience had a very positive impact on them.

The study also found that the likelihood of a student's participation in school-based service, as well as in courses that involve one or more quality elements of service learning, is related to several school factors:

In addition, the study found that youth coming from families where their parents and/or siblings volunteer are more likely to report current or past participation in school-based service, as well as service-learning courses that contain planning, reflection, and/or regular service that lasts at least one semester.
Participation in school-based volunteer service, and especially service-learning courses with several quality elements, also was found to have a strong positive relationship with several measures of civic engagement, including their stated likelihood of future volunteering, their sense of personal efficacy, and their interest in current events and politics. Indeed, the strongest of these relationships are around future civic behaviors and attitudes. For example, we found that:


Label Value
Author Corporation for National and Community Service
Pedagogical Area
  • service learning
Delivery Area
  • school based
Outcome Area
  • academic performance
  • civic engagement
  • self efficacy
  • environmental knowledge, attitude and awareness
Participant Area
  • student
  • educator
  • school
Age Area
  • elementary (6-11 years old)
  • middle school (12-14 years old)
  • high school (14-18 years old)