Service May Make a Difference in Reducing Achievement Gaps

Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J. C., & Benson, P. L. (2006). Reducing academic achievement gaps: The role of community service and service-learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(1), 38–60. doi:10.1177/105382590602900105

Article Summary

The purpose of this article was to explore whether community service and service-learning has an impact in the achievement rates for low-income students.  This is a quantitative study examining responses from national samples of U.S. public school principals, data from more than 200,000 U.S. middle and high school students from over 300 communities, and a sample of middle and high school students from Colorado Springs, Colorado (Scales, Roehlkepartain, Neal, Kielsmeier, & Benson, 2006).  The researchers focused on three major questions: perceived impact of community service or service-learning, relation of service to achievement gaps, and the effect of participation with service-learning over a longer period of time (Scales, 2006).   Their study indicated that, “Principals of urban, high poverty, or majority nonwhite schools are significantly more likely than other principals to judge service learning’s impact on attendance, school engagement, and academic achievement to be ‘very positive'” (Scales, 2006).  The researchers also found that participation in community service or service-learning “seems to be related to lessened achievement gaps between low SES and high SES students” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Furthermore, study of the data indicated that “low-SES students who contributed  community service reported significantly fewer missed school days and significantly higher grades than other low-SES students who did not participate in service” (Scales et. al., 2006).  Overall, the researchers concluded that service-learning may be a valuable teaching strategy to positively impact achievement and student engagement.  This strategy can be especially valuable in urban, high poverty, or nonwhite environments.  Service learning may also have a correlation to reducing the achievement gap between students from lower and higher incomes (Scales et. al., 2006).  The researchers emphasized that you cannot conlude a direct causality because of the many variables involved in student engagement and achievement; however, they indicate a “strong link between service or service-learning and academic success” (Scales et. al., 2006).

Strengths and Critiques

The researches provided a thorough literature review documenting the research about  low SES students, analysis of various approaches to school success, and prior studies on the effects of experiential learning and service on academic success.  The breadth of additional resources and references utilized spanned multiple decades and multiple k-12 settings.  The researchers also explained their purpose, methodology, and results with very accessible language.  They were also very forthright in discussing the shortcomings of their research as well as adamant that the findings do not show direct causality to academic achievement.

One major critique of the study, as also noted by the researchers, is that much of the data is self-reported.  Principals self-reported their perceptions and attitudes of service learning, and student data was primarily self-reported as well.  Finally, the researchers also noted that there was no measure of the quality of the service experience.

Another critique I had regarding the study was the lack of delineation between community service and service learning.  Service learning includes a direct correlation between the service to the community and the learning outcomes for the course.  Community service is more like volunteerism.  I believe there is a clear distinction between the two, and each has the potential to impact students differently.  Overall, I understand the point of the study was not to compare service learning to community service.  However, I think it is an important distinction as service learning has a direct correlation to curriculum and student learning outcomes.

My Take

I chose this research study as I wanted to review another quantitative study.  I find that I have a long way to go with my development and understanding of quantitative methods and their implications and usefulness within educational research.  This study struck the perfect tone for me in that the researchers clearly wrote the article with audience in mind – school leaders and practitioners.  Consequently, the article was very accessible, and provided clear explanations of the methods utilized.

I also believe this study has great impact for my line of inquiry.  I am becoming excited about the potential of researching the impact of service learning, community service, and experiential learning in the developmental classroom at the community college level.  Although this study focused primary on middle and high school students, I believe the findings may be applicable to the community college setting.  GCC fits the profile for the schools mentioned in this study – high poverty, majority nonwhite, and within an urban setting.  The student demographics outlined in this study also reflect that of our students.  And, GCC has a sizable achievement gap between students of color and white students.  This study indicates that at a minimum, community colleges should explore implementing community service and/or service learning programs within its curriculum.  Furthermore, these service efforts could help make gains in reducing the achievement gap if targeting low SES students as well.

One area I want to explore further is the design of quality service-learning experiences.  I am familiar with service-learning from a distance.  I have discussed with other faculty members who routinely engage in service-learning the need to identify projects that meet the needs of a community organization, while also aligning directly to the course curriculum and learning outcomes.  I also understand there needs to be a strong component of reflection and assessment in quality service-learning programs.  However, I am not clear on what this would mean for the design of a quality service-learning experience, the strategies a faculty member needs to have in order to successfully facilitate service learning, and the duration of service-learning as well.  Furthermore, I am not aware of studies on the impact of service-learning on the developmental student population.  This may be a focus of mine moving forward – is service-learning a strategy that community colleges should emphasize and dedicate resources toward to reduce achievement gaps and improve success rates in the developmental classroom?  If yes, what does that look like and how would a college go about infusing service-learning more deeply in the developmental classroom.

Finally, I also believe a study such as this is ripe for qualitative data as well. Interviewing students who participate in service-learning about its impact on their lives, their attitudes, and their perceptions toward school and the community seem very relevant to this work.  I believe a blend of methods would lead toward a strong project researching the impact of service-learning in the developmental education community.  Student voice, faculty voice, and community voice would complement the data regarding course success, GPA, and student engagement.