Curriculum, Equity, Policy, School Community

Mandated Community Involvement: A Question of Equity

Contemporary education discourse makes widespread (at times, even panicked) reference to a “crisis” in citizenship among youth, commonly describing young citizens as ignorant of basic civic knowledge, alienated from political participation, and sceptical of the values of democratic citizenship. The assumption is that civic engagement is a “marker of maturity”, and civic inactivity is attributed to youths’ lack of interest, knowledge, or cognitive sophistication.[1] If adolescent populations are perceived to have withdrawn from their civic duties (for example, by not volunteering or voting in elections), these actions (or lack thereof) may be considered an indicator of young people’s indifference or “bankrupt sense of citizenship”.[2]

Mandated Community Involvement

Some educators argue that community involvement activities can decrease young people’s so-called democratic deficit by imbuing them with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for participation in a vibrant democracy. For example, Conrad and Hedin’s oft-cited review of community involvement research in K-12 educational settings provides evidence that such educational programming is associated with students’ civic-related learning outcomes – notably, self-esteem, appreciation for diversity, responsibility toward the community, political efficacy, understanding of socio-historical contexts, and willingness to volunteer in future.[3] Furthermore, youths’ active engagement in the local community is hypothesized to have a “trickle-up” effect, whereby students’ experiences completing community involvement are generalized into a greater sense of duty towards the national and global communities.[4] This theory also presumes that wider social problems (such as poverty and environmental degradation) can be mitigated by young peoples’ active participation in society.

Community involvement activities are typically described as dual-purposed: benefiting both the individual server and the larger community. As Volunteer Canada notes, “By caring and contributing to change, volunteers decrease suffering and disparity, while they gain skills, self-esteem and change their lives. People work to improve the lives of their neighbours and, in return, enhance their own.”[5]

Based on the assumption that all young people and their communities would benefit from students’ active participation in community endeavours, some Canadian provinces and U.S. states have mandated completion of community involvement activities as a condition of secondary school graduation. British Columbia, for example, has required secondary school students to participate in at least 30 hours of work experience and/or community involvement as part of their “Graduation Transitions Program” since 1995. Similarly, eight states provide secondary school credits for students who complete service-learning activities; in Maryland, secondary school students have been required to perform 75 hours of community involvement since 1992.[6]

In September 1999, the Government of Ontario began requiring all secondary students to complete 40 hours of community involvement in order to graduate. Ushered in during the Progressive Conservative era of Premier Mike Harris, the policy language suggested that this requirement was primarily designed to build students’ personal responsibility and to strengthen the qualities assumed to drive individual success: “the requirement will benefit communities, but its primary purpose is to contribute to students’ development.”[7] Students are seen as independent individuals who are responsible for, and capable of, making beneficial contributions within their neighbourhoods and beyond.

Debates continue over whether students should be “forced” to volunteer, as mandated community involvement is not necessarily equivalent (in process or in outcome) to voluntary service. One argument in favour of mandated community involvement is that such policies engage the students who would not have volunteered on their own accord. This appears to be the case in Ontario, where a 2007 study of students who had recently graduated from an Ontario secondary school found that, on average, they did not harbour negative attitudes toward the compulsory nature of the community involvement requirement, and that the program had been successful in mobilizing students who otherwise would not have volunteered.[8]

Unlike Ontario’s community involvement initiative, the paramount concern of “service-learning” programs is to further students’ understanding of social problems through community-based and classroom learning opportunities.

Ontario’s 40-hour community involvement requirement is an interesting case study because of the level of autonomy it affords to students. Students are given the freedom to choose how they will complete their community involvement hours, provided their proposed placement type is listed on the school board’s catalogue of approved activities. They may choose to complete all 40 hours at one location or to accumulate hours through a smorgasbord of activities. They may spread their community involvement activities over the four-year span of secondary school, or hurry through the bulk of their requirement in a few weekends. Since these activities are performed outside of school hours without teacher supervision, accounting for community involvement hours runs somewhat on the honour system. When students finish their contracts at each community involvement placement, they fill out their school board’s prescribed completion form and provide verifying signatures from placement supervisors.

The “service-learning” model frequently adopted in the United States sits in sharp contrast to Ontario’s approach, and is often heralded as the “best practice” of citizenship education. Unlike Ontario’s community involvement initiative, the paramount concern of “service-learning” programs is to further students’ understanding of social problems through community-based and classroom learning opportunities. In addition to the service experience itself, such programs incorporate preparatory orientation (such as researching the problem or conducting a needs-analysis) and follow-up activities (such as self-assessing the work completed or arranging future programming) directly into classroom curriculum. Additionally, service-learning diverges from other community involvement initiatives by incorporating structured reflection (often in the form of journals, short papers, and/or discussion groups). Advocates of the service-learning model suggest that the inclusion of such structural elements provides a platform for students to think about, and make sense of, their personal experiences, as well as an avenue to explore the social problems underlying the need for community involvement.

Equal Opportunities for Citizenship Learning?

I entered secondary school as a member of the “double cohort year”, a term that was used to describe the convergence of two graduating secondary school classes during Ontario’s 2002-2003 school year. The “double cohort” was the result of then-Premier Mike Harris’ policy decision to phase out the OAC year (Ontario Academic Credit, or Grade 13) in favour of a four-year secondary school diploma. This restructuring was one part of a series of secondary school reforms (colloquially referred to as “the new curriculum”), which also involved a number of changes to students’ diploma requirements, including the addition of the 40-hour community involvement requirement. I was grouped in the elder half of the “double cohort”, and consequently I experienced Ontario’s educational reforms from an interesting vantage point: I witnessed the changes unfold during their seminal year, but was not personally affected by the incoming policies.

Initially, I was enthusiastic about the 40-hour community involvement requirement, based on my own (largely positive) experiences participating in school councils and community youth organizations. In my view at the time, the requirement would provide a refreshing modification to the academic focus of the formal school system, and help connect students with the social world beyond their classroom. However, my later professional experiences in priority neighbourhoods and my exploration of the research literature suggested that students’ opportunities for citizenship-related learning are not distributed equally. Specifically, privileged students may have disproportionate access to community involvement activities based on their greater access to resources and social networks. Thus, my own research focused on the role of social class – a powerful factor influencing young people’s civic engagement – in relation to students’ community involvement experiences.

My analysis of surveys and focus groups among 50 current and recently graduated secondary school students from widely contrasting socio-economic settings focused on the ways participants reported their school staff members’ support (or lack thereof) for community involvement activities; participants’ direct or distant relationships with service recipients; and participants’ sense of their own individual and collective agency to effect social change. (The full thesis can be accessed online at: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/25654)

This study found that high- and low-income participants, on average, met their community involvement requirements with different types of community involvement activities. High-income participants tended to complete a more diverse range of activities at a greater variety of locations than low-income participants. Furthermore, 46 percent of the low-income participants admitted to forging or exaggerating their community involvement hours, while only one high-income participant reported falsification. High-income participants’ wider breadth of community involvement activities and low-income participants’ relatively limited (and sometimes negative) community involvement experiences were consistently spoken about throughout the qualitative focus group discussions.

Participants described the level of school staff members’ support as an important factor mediating the entire process of finding and completing community involvement hours. High-income participants most often described their school staff members as positive role models and reported receiving ample support in identifying placements and completing their community involvement hours. In contrast, most low-income participants reported receiving virtually no guidance in locating a community involvement placement and perceived this lack of support as indicative of a wider lack of concern for their civic engagement.

High- and low-income participants’ opportunities to develop relationships with service recipients varied considerably as well: some (mostly high-income) participants heralded their newfound bonds with community members as the chief benefit and main positive memory of their community involvement experience, while others (mostly low-income) reported seldom having exposure to anyone outside of their project supervisors or other volunteers. Some high-income participants spoke about overcoming stereotypes, reflecting on their own circumstances, and becoming aware of social problems to varying extents as a result of their direct interactions with service recipients. Low-income participants, by contrast, expressed an expectation of encountering social problems through their own lived experiences, and did not usually describe their community involvement placements as having broadened their horizons.

While mandatory community involvement may require all students to donate equal amounts of their time, it cannot guarantee equal access to meaningful community involvement placements.

Finally, when reflecting on their personal sense of agency to “make a difference”, high-income participants tended to view themselves as capable social actors who were responsible for improving their communities. On the other hand, low-income participants more often spoke about needing to prioritize income-generating opportunities over community involvement hours in order to meet their own basic needs. Furthermore, high-income participants spoke about feeling obligated to participate in community involvement as an expression of gratitude for their fortunate status, whereas low-income participants did not often articulate a sense of indebtedness to their communities. While high- and low-income participants spoke differently about their individual agency to effect change, only one participant believed that students’ short-term community involvement activities would actually solve underlying social problems.

While this study design does not support broad or predictive generalizations, it does show that high- and low-income participants differed in the ways they spoke about virtually every aspect of their experiences completing the Ontario community involvement requirement. So, while mandatory community involvement may require all students to donate equal amounts of their time, it cannot guarantee equal access to meaningful community involvement placements. Differential access to time, resources, and social networks may markedly influence the types of community involvement activities in which high- and low-income students participate.

On the surface, the flexible choice available within Ontario’s community involvement requirement would seem to be responsive to individual needs. However, downloading the responsibility for securing community involvement placements onto students may actually exacerbate educational inequalities. Students’ choices, after all, are constrained by their awareness of, and access to, desired volunteer placements as well as by other social, cultural, educational, and economic factors. As a result, all students (perhaps especially those of less privileged backgrounds) may benefit from structured and/or teacher-guided community involvement activities, similar to those described in the service-learning model.

As of this writing, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has not allocated funding to support the community involvement requirement in individual schools, raising questions about the government’s commitment to all students’ opportunities to learn and to practice active citizenship. If all students had greater access to resources and support for their community involvement activities, the apparent disparities between high- and low-income students’ experiences could potentially decrease. In particular, the Government of Ontario could place greater priority on making the community involvement requirement more explicitly educative and responsive to the needs of an economically diverse population.

While I continue to question the structure and merits of the 40-hour requirement as implemented, this questioning should not be construed as cynicism or contempt. Even though I believe Ontario’s approach requires considerable revision in order to facilitate students’ constructive citizenship learning, I consider the requirement to be worthy of preservation and extension. I base my support on the fact that some participants in my research study had encountered opportunities to complete personally meaningful community involvement activities in which they developed strong partnerships with other people (school staff members and service recipients), and reflected positively on their personal agency to “make a difference”. Given the context in which this requirement was introduced and its potential positive consequences for students and communities, I hope to stimulate a dialogue among educators that re-imagines citizenship education strategies for a diverse student population.

EN BREF – En se fondant sur l’hypothèse que tous les jeunes – et leurs collectivités – pourraient profiter de leur participation active à des initiatives communautaires, des provinces canadiennes et des États américains exigent maintenant qu’ils participent à des activités communautaires pour obtenir leur diplôme. On débat encore s’il est pertinent de « forcer » les élèves à faire du bénévolat. En Ontario, les 40 heures obligatoires de services communautaires constituent une intéressante étude de cas, car les élèves ont l’autonomie de décider à quoi consacrer ces heures. À l’opposé, le modèle d’apprentissage du service civique de la plupart des programmes américains approfondit la compréhension qu’ont les élèves des problèmes sociaux au moyen d’activités communautaires et d’apprentissage en classe. Une étude menée auprès de 50 élèves actuels et ayant récemment obtenu leur diplôme d’études secondaires en Ontario, provenant de milieux socioéconomiques très diversifiés, a constaté que, à temps bénévole égal, les élèves n’ont pas également accès à un placement de bénévolat porteur de sens. Le statut socioéconomique influe sur le temps, les ressources et les réseaux sociaux des élèves, et donc sur les types de bénévolat communautaire qu’ils peuvent faire.

[1] S. Condor and S. Gibson, “Everybody’s Entitled to their Own Opinion: Ideological Dilemmas of Liberal Individualism and Active Citizenship,” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 17, no. 2 (2007): 115-140.

[2] J. E. Kahne and J. Westheimer, “In the Service of What? The Politics of Service Learning,” Phi Delta Kappan 77, no. 9 (1996): 592-599.

[3] D. Conrad and D. Hedin, High School Community Service: A Review of Research and Programs (Madison, WI: National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, 1989).

[4] Condor and Gibson.

[5] Volunteer Canada, “Message from the Board Chair” (2010). Retrieved from http://volunteer.ca/about-us/board-and-staff/message-board-chair

[6] National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, “State and School District Policy for K-12 Service-learning” (2008). Retrieved from www.servicelearning.org/filemanager/download/twopage_fs/Policy_in_K-12_SL_Short_FS_FINAL__Mar08.pdf

[7] Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Ontario Secondary Schools Grades 9 to 12 Program and Diploma Requirements (Toronto, ON: MET, 1999).

[8] A. Henderson, S. D. Brown, S. M. Pancer, and K. Ellis-Hale, “Mandated Community Service in High School and Subsequent Civic Engagement: The Case of the “Double Cohort” in Ontario, Canada,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 36, no. 7 (2007): 849-860.

Meet the Expert(s)

Kaylan C. Schwarz

Kaylan C. Schwarz holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). She is currently employed as a Global Education Coordinator at an independent secondary school in Toronto and serves as President for the Civics Education Network.  

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