Study: Service mandate cuts volunteering

Maryland’s community service requirement — high school students must complete 75 hours to earn a diploma — may reduce their later volunteering, according to a new study. The mandate increased volunteering by 8th graders, but decreased it for 12th graders, concludes Involuntary Volunteering. Instead of creating lifelong service, the graduation requirement may discourage voluntary volunteering.

“If this is for school, how do we know [students] are considering this as community service, rather than just homework for school?” said the study’s author, Sara E. Helms, an assistant professor of economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “One of the interpretations that is more convincing is, maybe we are substituting this [requirement] for being self-motivated. Does it dilute the signal value of volunteering?”

“Service learning” — students earn credit for volunteering in their communities — is expanding, reports Education Week.  ”In 2011, 19 states allowed districts to award credit toward graduation for volunteering or service learning, and seven states allowed districts to require service for graduation.”

To get into college, be perfect — or lie

Elite colleges are looking for genius tigerkids, the ethnically and sexually diverse  – and liars, writes Suzy Lee Weiss, a high school senior in Pittsburgh, in  To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me in the Wall Street Journal.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms.

Weiss worked at a pizza place and ran last on the track team.

Worse, she is white — not even 1/32 Cherokee — as well as middle class and heterosexual, the antidiversity trifecta. And she didn’t redeem herself by starting a “fake charity.”

Providing veterinary services for homeless people’s pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.

Teens without traumas of their own are supposed to write their admissions essays about their trip to Africa — “spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life” — but Weiss went to summer camp instead.

With a 4.5 GPA, 2120 SAT scores and a stint as a U.S. Senate page, Weiss was rejected by Princeton, Yale, Penn and Vanderbilt. Critics complain she’s whiny, but I read her as sarcastic and quite funny.

Admissions directors should stop demanding that applicants tell absurd lies, writes Megan McArdle.

 These days, a nearly-perfect GPA is the barest requisite for an elite institution. You’re also supposed to be a top notch athlete and/or musician, the master of multiple extracurriculars.  Summers should preferably be spent doing charitable work, hopefully in a foreign country, or failing that, at least attending some sort of advanced academic or athletic program.

Naturally, this selects for kids who are extremely affluent, with extremely motivated parents who will steer them through the process of “founding a charity” and other artificial activities.  Kids who have to spend their summer doing some boring menial labor in order to buy clothes have a hard time amassing that kind of enrichment experience.

In her day, applicants faked epiphanies about themselves. Now they have to fake epiphanies about the suffering of others, preferably foreigners. “This proves that they are really caring human beings who want to do more for the world than just make money so that they, too will, in their time, be able to get their children into Harvard.”

Mandatory volunteerism

I know I’ve banged this particular drum before, but it’s always good to remind yourself of the absurd and insidious, lest it draw you in.  High school seniors in Maryland right now are busy rushing around in that typical year end frenzy to make up credits, pass exams, and… get their community service hours squared away.  Maryland is the only state with a statewide “service learning” requirement.

Twenty years after Maryland became the first state to require student service for a diploma, the senior scramble is a rite of spring. In Montgomery, 25 percent of seniors still had hours to turn in this week. In Prince George’s County, 36 percent were not yet done.

Spring break is crunch time.

“Hopefully they’re going to find something meaningful to do,” said Pam Meador, coordinator of the program for Montgomery schools.

Because as we all know, working to make your life and the life of those you love better, to make yourself a content and happy member of society… that’s not meaningful.  But is this really the best way to go about it?

“All of us want kids to intrinsically want to give back,” said Peter Noonan, an assistant Fairfax superintendent.

But forced service can backfire, he said. “My experience with kids is that when they are forced to do things, they typically don’t want to do it again,” Noonan said.

You don’t say?  Well at least we’re clear about the purpose: to change what it is kids want to do, intrinsically.  It’s absolutely straightforward values manipulation — which is usually called indoctrination.  I’ve previously argued, on many occasions, that unpaid internships are really unfair to kids from poor families who can’t afford to spend the summer working for free.  (I wasn’t arguing for their legal abolition, merely pointing out their moral perniciousness.  I’m a free marketeer at the end of the day.)   We shouldn’t be surprised that kids with more home support are better able to deal with these requirements as well:

Some students have advantages. Their parents might drive them around to activities starting in middle school. They might attend community-service summer camps, which can cost $350 a week. They might accumulate hours for, say, a bar mitzvah or a church confirmation and use that to meet school requirements.

I’m not anti-community service.  Have people come in to schools and preach about the joys of community service if you like.  Maybe they’ll inspire someone.  Post opportunities at school on a big colorful board.  Maybe the curious will become true believers.

Heck, if you’re going to have mandatory community service, have it be school improvement.  Plant and tend gardens at school (decorative, not productive).  Clean buildings and floors.  Do tech work for a play.  Work as the water boy/towel washer for a sports team.  Work in the library.  Help with minor construction projects.  Sort files.  Straighten up the music library.  Polish the band’s instruments.

At least then the students will be engaging in public service that obviously benefits them, and they’ll be able to see daily the results of their labor.

Of course, the classified employee’s labor union would object to a lot of these.

Chicago college leaders’ jobs are on the line

Very low completion rates at Chicago City Colleges — 13 percent after six years — will improve or college presidents will lose their jobs. Accountability is part of Chancellor Cheryl Hyman’s “reinvention” campaign.

A Massachusetts community college has received a $2 million donation to open a civic learning center to encourage community service.

I argue against requiring college students to perform community service on National Journal.

Seeking wise, creative students

Colleges admit students with strong analytical skills, but may reject creative, wise and community-minded students who’d also do well, argues psychologist Robert Sternberg.  After trying his ideas as a dean at Tufts, which attracts very well-qualified students, Sternberg became provost at Oklahoma State, which takes 70 to 75 percent of applicants.  The university is testing new essay prompts to identify applicants with hard-to-measure qualities, reports Inside Higher Ed.

Oklahoma State accepts students with a 1090 SAT (without the writing test) or a 3.0 grade point average and top-third-of-the-class ranking. Students with lower grades and scores can get in by doing well on an essay question, which might ask about their goals or special interests.

The university is asking current freshmen to answer questions Sternberg developed. Several will be chosen for next year’s applications.  For example:

“Music spans time and culture. Explain how the lyrics of one of your favorite songs define you or your cultural experience.”

“If you were able to open a local charity of your choice, what type of charity would it be, how would you draw people to your cause, and whom would it benefit?”

“Today’s movies often feature superheroes and the supernatural. If you could have one superpower, what would it be, and how would you use it? Who would be your archenemy, and what would be his or her superpower?”

“Roughly 99 percent” of admitted applicants have qualified on some combination of grades and test scores, Sternberg says. “Who believes, really, that ACTs and high school grades are going to predict who will become the positive active citizens and leaders of tomorrow?”

I do.  The combination of high school grades and test scores predicts who’ll complete a college degree, which predicts active citizenship, such as voting and volunteering.

A good writer can express creativity and devotion to community service — maybe even wisdom — by writing about goals and interests. Just because the question is boring doesn’t mean the answer has to be. A bad writer won’t do any better because he knows a lot about comic superheroes. I suspect few C+ students with mediocre ACT or SAT scores can write a good essay on any topic.

But it’s an experiment. Maybe Oklahoma State will find hidden gems in its applicant pool by tweaking the essay prompts.

Should instructors offer extra credit?

Should college instructors offer extra credit? If so, is it OK to offer grade-raising points for community service, donating blood or attending a cultural event?

Also on Community College Spotlight:  Not just anyone can judge the quality of Kansas City barbecue. Would-be barbecue judges must pass a certification class before taking the oath.

They also serve who only sit in class

Mandatory volunteerism is now optional in Baltimore public schools, writes Dave Greene at BaltoNorth. He calls it “oxymoron squared.”

If a student at Ridgely Middle School reads his report card carefully, he might well ask, “why do the Service Learning hours on my report card go up every semester even though I haven’t done any community service work yet?”

The answer: Over the past decade or so, Service Learning has slowly become “infused” in the curriculum. Students get community service credits just for going to class! They don’t have to leave the school or do any extra work!

Maryland mandated student service in 1992. It’s taught cynicism, Greene concludes.

Update: Greene responds to comments on this blog.