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Definition from Federal Legislation

The term “service-learning” was defined in Federal legislation for the first time in the National and Community Service Act of 1990 (as amended through December 17, 1999, P.L. 106-170; Section 101 (23) and reauthorized through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009):

The term “service-learning” means a method

  1. under which students or participants learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service that

    a. is conducted in and meets the needs of a community;
    b. is coordinated with an elementary school, secondary school, institution of higher education, or community service program, and with the community; and
    c. helps foster civic responsibility; and

  2. that

    a. is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students, or the educational components of the community service program in which the participants are enrolled; and
    b. provides structured time for the students or participants to reflect on the service experience.

The Serve America Act of 2009 extends the purpose of service-learning to “expand and strengthen service-learning programs through year-round opportunities, including opportunities during the summer months, to improve the education of children and youth and to maximize the benefits of national and community service, in order to renew the ethic of civic responsibility and the spirit of community for children and youth throughout the United States.”1

The U.S. Department of Education further emphasized the importance of civic engagement and the role that schools play through service-learning and other related efforts. The Department notes that “every student in every school, college, and university deserves a high quality education, including a high quality civic education” in its 2012 Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action (PDF, 40 pages).2 The Road Map and Call to Action highlight the following five priorities:3

  1. Advancing civic learning and democratic engagement in both the U.S. and global contexts by encouraging efforts to make them core expectations for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students — including undergraduate and graduate students;
  2. Developing more robust evidence of civic and other student achievement outcomes of civic learning, and of the impact of school and campus community partnerships;
  3. Strengthening school and campus community connections to address significant community problems and advance a local or regional vision and narrative for civic engagement;
  4. Expanding research and the range of public scholarship, with a special emphasis on promoting knowledge creation for the good of society;
  5. Deepening civic identity by sharing stories of civic work in social media and organizing deliberative discussions about the roles of higher education in communities across the country, and by creating initiatives in science, arts, and other fields to catalyze civic agency.4

1 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, p. 6
2 U.S. Department of Education, 2012, p. 2
3 U.S. Department of Education, 2012, p. 3
4 Civic agency is the capacity to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems and challenges.