George Mason High School
Falls Church, VA
First Place Winner, Virginia
“Public service must be more than doing a job efficiently and honestly. It must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation.”
-Margaret Chase Smith
“The Congress shall have the Power to...provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States.” This excerpt from Article I, Section viii of the United States Constitution establishes the extent and boundaries of legislative power. These words confirm the Constitutional validity of the notion of requiring young Americans to spend at least one year in public service. Because the program would aim to meet some of the nation’s unmet or under addressed issues, it can clearly be categorized as providing for the “general Welfare” of the country. Therefore, the debate surrounding this program should focus not on its legality or whether it is an unnecessary intrusion by the federal government, but rather its efficacy and execution. Young Americans should not be required to spend one year in public service, but not because it would be an inappropriate action for the government to take. Rather, in addition to the plethora of logistical obstacles it would encounter, the program would detract from the success of the mission that it was designed to pursue.
It is easy to see the value in an idealistic implementation of this program. The requirement would result in an increased number of citizens working in public service industries such as education, healthcare, public transport, social services, and serving in the military. With a larger task force, each of these fields should see rapid growth and improvement. The mandate would also ensure that every American is exposed to the nature of working in public service and its beneficial impact on society. This would ideally lay the groundwork for continued involvement and awareness of public needs.
Despite the well-intended nature of these goals, however, this program would likely not achieve them. At the heart of the reasons why this program would fail is the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These factors have been explored and debated by psychologists and economists since the mid-twentieth century. The Overjustification Theory claims, “a person’s intrinsic interest in an activity may be undermined by inducing him to engage in that activity as an explicit means to some extrinsic goal” (Lepper 1). In an experiment conducted by Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nisbett, three groups of children were given a drawing activity; one group expected (and was given) a reward for the activity, while another was given no reward and the last group was not expecting a reward, but received one nevertheless. After two weeks, the same groups were given free time with the possibility of continuing the same drawing activity. The results were clear; amongst the group which did the activity for a reward, only 8.59 percent chose to play with the drawing activity, while this percentage was about doubled in the two other groups; 16.73% of those given no reward and 18.09% of those who received an unexpected award chose the activity (Lepper 11). These results demonstrate that extrinsic motivation can decrease a person’s intrinsic interest in continuing an activity on a long-term basis.
Making a requirement of one year of service from all young Americans would shift the focus of public service to the extrinsic reason resulting from the mandate rather than an intrinsic motivation to make a difference. The primary negative impact of this shift would be a decrease in long-term commitments to public service. One organization that can serve as an exemplar of the long term results of short-term requirements is the non-profit group Teach For America.
Founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990, Teach For America strives to “ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education” (Teach For America). The program recruits aspiring educators immediately after completing a four-year undergraduate degree to teach in low-income and high-need schools for at least two years. There is no doubt that this program has had a significant benefit for many communities, providing struggling public school systems with teachers selected out of a high-achieving group of college students. It also gives future educators experience teaching in often challenging circumstances. The downfalls of Teach For America, however, become visible in a long-term evaluation of the organization’s statistics, and these clearly parallel the potential effects of mandating young Americans to spend a year in public service.
By requiring a commitment of two years working in low-income schools, Teach For America seems to decrease the success of its long-term goal of “fueling long-term impact” (Teach For America). A study conducted by Education Week showed the retention rates of the program, measured over progressively longer time periods. While the study found that a 60.5 percent majority of participants continued as public school teachers beyond the two year commitment, only 43.6 percent continue working in their low-income school after the requirement was fulfilled, and that statistic drops to a mere 14.8 percent after five years (Education Week). These figures demonstrate that the requirement of working a short period of two years in high-needs schools does not accomplish any significant long-term benefits, as a vast majority of participants in the program left their initial posts within five years. A similar product would likely be the result of requiring at least one year of public service, providing an initial boost but failing over time to inspire lasting commitments.
The concept of high school service hour requirements is another poignant example of the effects of short-term mandates over a long period of time, and one that is close to home for many high school students. In high schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, students pursuing this prestigious diploma are required to comply with Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) requirements. While the goal of this program is to encourage well-rounded students, in reality the mandates decrease the motivation of students. As an IB Diploma candidate myself, I have witnessed the attitudes that many of my peers develop towards fulfilling these required hours. Although many students were already engaged in community volunteer work and several extracurricular activities, the requirements cast a different light on these projects, transforming self-motivated efforts into stressful ‘work.’
Another Education Week study revealed a striking impact of high school service requirements on commitment to service later in students’ lives. In 1993, Maryland instituted a statewide requirement that students complete seventy-five hours of service by their graduation. The study compared nationwide data taken measuring community service involvement of high school students in their senior year. Prior to the state service mandate, Maryland seniors were 7.8 percent higher than the national average in being engaged in service activities, and after the changes, from 1997 to 2011, they ranged from 9.2 to 17.4 percent below the national average (Education Week). Additionally, new programs such as the National Honor Society, which also has service hour requirements, result in students and teachers primarily developing methodical ways in which students can gain hours most efficiently. This replaces the more meaningful process of engaging in activities that students can relate to and which are of genuine interest to them.
A similar attitude shift would surely follow the implementation of a public service requirement for young Americans. The concept of being a public servant would no longer be that of a selfless desire to make a positive impact on a community, but rather a task on a checklist that must be completed. While this is a disheartening ethical consequence, the potential practical effects would be similarly severe. Long-term commitment to service would be drastically reduced, and therefore the overall productivity and quality of public service organizations would suffer proportionally.
Few would argue that spending time in public service is not a worthy venture. The goal of instituting a mandatory one-year period of public service is certainly valid; it is obviously desirable to engage a large portion of the population in serving their communities and nation. Certainly our country can do more to encourage young Americans to serve in public service industries. Schools can encourage children, starting at a young age, to think more about their society and reflect on how they can make an impact. Elementary and Middle Schools have the potential to play a large role in this process by allowing children and parents to get involved in their communities, even in small capacities such as planting a garden in their school or making cards for a local senior center. Exposing young students to the value of public service is the most effective way of encouraging a generation of genuinely community-oriented citizens who are inspired to make a substantial contribution to society. Then, perhaps, we can finally reach Margaret Smith’s definition of public service, fostering and achieving “a complete dedication to the people and to the nation.”
Donaldson, Morgaen L., and Susan M. Johnson. "TFA Teachers: How Long Do They Teach? Why Do They Leave?"Education Week:. N.p., 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
"Fueling Long-Term Impact." Teach For America. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Lepper, Mark R., and Richard E. Nisbett. "Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward: A Test of the "Overjustification" Hypothesis." Journal of Psychology (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Sparks, Sarah D. "Community Service Requirements Seen to Reduce Volunteering." Education Week. N.p., 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.