Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Democratic and Social Justice Goals in Service-Learning Evaluation: Contemporary Challenges and Conceptual Resources

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Democratic and Social Justice Goals in Service-Learning Evaluation: Contemporary Challenges and Conceptual Resources

Article excerpt

This paper is part of a study on the long-term effects of participation in a comprehensive service-learning program on alumni knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for effective democratic citizenship. In this article, the larger research project is introduced and its central questions are put into historical context. I contend that critical consideration of the changing context of higher education in recent decades--especially the advent of neoliberalism and a transformation in the meaning of the terms civic and citizenship--indicates the need for a more robust normative conceptual framework if democratic and justice goals of service-learning are to be incorporated meaningfully into evaluation work. Based on these historical/ideological challenges, I identify some core theoretical problems that must be addressed in evaluating service-learning's outcomes vis-a-vis democracy and social justice, and then explore conceptual resources for developing an adequate framework.

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Does participation in an intensive service-learning experience during college contribute to the development and exercise of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for effective citizenship in modern democratic society? This is one of the research questions posed at the outset of a three-yearlong, in-depth qualitative case study of the impact on alumni of the International and National Voluntary Service Training (INVST) Community Leadership Program (CLP) at the University of Colorado Boulder. (1) Qualitative interviews of 18 alumni from across the program's 24-year history were supplemented by participant observations and analysis of organizational documents--including regular alumni newsletter updates--to identify features of social justice and democratic identity in alumni narratives of their life and career trajectories. The findings help to contextualize and interpret organizational data on subsequent careers of program alumni as well as with evaluating program outcomes--specifically, how well the program achieves its stated goal to "develop engaged citizens and leaders who work for the benefit of humanity and the environment" (INVST Community Studies, 2014).

The task of evaluating the impact of service-learning involves clarifying the intended aims of a program at the outset, and operationalizing these so that they can be measured and assessed (Gelmon, Holland, Driscoll, Spring, & Kerrigan, 2001). It became apparent as the CLP study progressed that the central goals that motivate the service-learning for civic engagement movement must be clarified, not only for purposes of accurately evaluating outcomes of past and present practice, but for the preservation of the democratic and justice character of ser vice-learning given efforts toward greater institutionalization in higher education (Furco & Holland, 2009; Speck & Hoppe, 2004).

Over the last decade-and-a-half, an intensifying debate amongst scholars has raised new questions about the role and effectiveness of service-learning programming and other civic engagement initiatives in educating for democratic citizenship (Kahne, Westheimer, & Rogers, 2000; O'Grady, 2000; Varlotta, 1997; Vergee, 2010). Kliewer (2013), for example, poses the question: "Given the degree to which the civic engagement field has been institutionalized in higher education, why has the field failed to achieve clearly defined democratic and justice aims?" (p. 72). He states in the title of his article that, at least as presently practiced, "the civic engagement movement cannot achieve democratic and justice aims" (p. 72; emphasis added). This provocative claim is based on the argument that given the ideological forces at work in our broader social and economic contexts, the practice of service-learning fails to promote essential democratic education aims related to social justice, and may in fact serve to reproduce and even legitimate unjust and undemocratic outcomes. …

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