Experiential education narrows gap between low- and high-income students

Experiential education, particularly community service and service learning, appears to narrow the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students, reports a study published in the Journal of Experiential Education.

After analyzing national survey data from students and principals, researchers found that low-socioeconomic status (SES) students who participated in community service had significantly fewer missed days of schools and significantly higher grades than students who did not participate in service.

“Our results suggest that service-learning may be an especially valued strategy for student engagement and achievement for principals in schools that are urban, or majority nonwhite, or high poverty,” the researchers conclude.

Research has repeatedly shown that low SES has negative impact on a wide range of aspects of child and adolescent well-being, including student academic achievement. Lower-income children are often cognitively stimulated less than higher-income children, and some studies have shown that participation in extracurricular activities and cooperative active student learning can help make up for this deficit and have as much effect on academic achievement as SES, the researchers say.

Community service may have this impact on academic achievement, the researchers write, because it: 

  • may make students feel useful and valued and help them see the connection between what they learn in school and the “real world,” and
  • may provide students with multiple sources of instructive feedback and create high expectations.

The data for the study were obtained across three different data sets:

  • a national sample of U.S. principals selected from the 2001-2002 Common Core of Data public schools universe file (survey responses were received from 1,799 schools, 91% of schools surveyed); 
  • a large, diverse sample of more than 217,000 6th-12th grade students from more than 300 U.S. communities that administered the Search Institute Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behavior Survey (PSL-AB) in the 1999-2000 school year; and
  • a racially and economically diverse sample of 5,136 6th-12th grade students from Colorado Springs, CO, who took both the PSL-AB survey and Search Institute’s Youth Supplement Survey in February 1999.

Urban principals see impact

In this study, principals of urban, high-poverty, or majority nonwhite schools were significantly more likely to view service learning as having a very positive impact on attendance, school engagement and academic achievement.

Only 8% of low-SES students without service reported getting mostly A’s while 11% of low-SES students who did service had high grades, a considerable difference within that group, the researchers note. They acknowledge that low-SES students who engage in service may be more academically oriented.

“Service-learning appeared to be associated with smaller gaps for attendance, achievement, motivation, school engagement, reading for pleasure and especially for bonding to school, but not for homework or self-reported grades,” the researchers note.

Even a relatively limited commitment to service learning appeared to make a difference in student attitudes toward school. Only 18% of students had at least a few weeks of service-learning; another 21% had a few hours to a few days. In the Colorado Springs sample, researchers found that students who reported a “few weeks” or more of service learning had more positive results on motivation, school engagement, bonding to school, homework and reading for pleasure than all other students. The students also had better attendance and grades than students with no service-learning, but not significantly better than students with a few hours of service-learning.

The researchers’ findings about the impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds are supported by previous research. In research for the Massachusetts Department of Education (2005), researchers concluded that service learning has tremendous potential in the lives of at-risk youth who do not typically participate in community activities.

According to the research by  Duckenfield and Drew (2006) of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, Clemson, SC, the best research-based dropout prevention strategies include school/community collaboration, family engagement, early literacy development, and service learning.

A complementary strategy to standards-based reforms, the researchers note, has been called “developmental attentiveness” or “human development as a core goal.” This approach links school reform with the developmental needs of children and the broader community environment. Learning service can play a key role in this approach to education, the researchers say.

“Reducing Academic Achievement Gaps: The Role of Community Service and Service-Learning,” by Peter C. Scales et al, Journal of Experiential Education,  Volume 29, No. 1 pps. 38-60.

Published in ERN November 2006 Volume 19 Number 8

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