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.

Requiring parents to 'volunteer'

An East San Jose K-8 district is talking about requiring parents to volunteer 30 hours a year in the classroom, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

In Alum Rock, where 88 percent of the students are poor and 54 percent are language-learners, most of its 28 schools don’t even have a PTA. But even as some critics warn working parents don’t have extra time, trustee Gustavo Gonzalez is pushing volunteerism, citing studies showing that students do better when their parents are involved.

Many Alum Rock parents are immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Vietnam and dozens of other countries. They don’t have the education or the English skills to be classroom tutors, if they had the time, which they don’t. They can be involved with their children at home.

This is a trial balloon that will deflate quickly. It’s got to be illegal to require parent work time at all public schools as a condition of enrollment.

More on unpaid interns

Most unpaid internships offered by for-profit employers are illegal, a Labor official tells the New York Times. But the rules don’t apply to nonprofits. President Obama’s Organizing for America offered unpaid internships during the campaign, writes Kerry Picket of the Washington Times (via HotAir). The group is still offering internships today with no pay and no stipends for food, transportation or housing.

The New York Times, which would like to be a for-profit company, uses unpaid interns, reports William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection. Interns receive college credit:

Working alongside our reporters and editors, students can expect to observe news events, evaluate news releases and competitors’ stories for possible coverage, and have their work critiqued by New York Times staffers.

. . . Students should expect to write several articles during their semester at The Times and will receive pay at minimum freelance rates for these news stories, as well as for any legwork or stringing. The internship itself is unpaid.

Jacobson isn’t sure this would pass muster with the Labor Department. If interns are evaluating stories for possible coverage, they’re providing value to the employer.

Of course, any would-be journalist would love the opportunity, even without the chance to freelance for minimum pay.

A day in the school library

As part of a Stanford alumni day of service, I spent Saturday at an elementary school library helping to mark books with the Accelerated Reader grade level, quiz number and points awarded for doing well on the quiz. The school has quite a few books, most of which have an associated quiz in the AR computer. Kids enjoy earning points so much they sometimes choose high-point books they’re not all that interested in, the librarian told us.

My partner and I coded lots of sports books, lots of Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl and some Artemis Fowl. Sometimes the reading level or the points seemed odd:  Barbara Cohen’s Passover story, Carp in the Bathtub, was only one point, while similar books were three or four points. (Thirteen was the highest we handled in the C and D authors.)

Both of us questioned whether Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, which includes a sexual assault on a young girl, belongs in an elementary library. (AR marks it as upper-grade reading with a surprisingly low reading level.) The librarian said she’d take a closer look at the book, which had been donated.

It was fun. I love children’s books.

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.