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The stealth factor in military readiness

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BY JIM COWEN AND MARCUS S. LINGENFELTER. TheHill.com

The backbone of the armed forces, the men and women who wear the uniform, are at risk of voting with their feet if the education of their children suffers because of their choice to serve the nation.

Military readiness, a measure of the ability of a military unit to accomplish its mission, is closely watched by leaders. Readiness typically is a function of length of deployments and the frequency of successive deployments, and it can be exacerbated by equipment problems or lack of training. But it is also impacted by issues on the home front, such as the quality of education for military-connected children.

At the root is something all American parents contend with: education standards that are inconsistent from school district to school district or state to state and that don’t properly prepare a child for career or college. What sets military families apart is that they are highly nomadic – Department of Defense dependents attend as many as nine schools during their K-12 years.

What that means is more than one million military-connected children, most of whom attend public schools, are exposed to the vagaries of U.S. education at a rate far exceeding that of their civilian counterparts. The education of military children can suffer as students are regularly put at a disadvantage of being either ahead of or behind their peers.

That academic disadvantage is having an impact on military readiness. Military families now make choices about whether to accept a particular duty station or, worse, even depart the armed forces based in part on the quality of the surrounding schools.

A recent survey by the Military Times, a leading publication widely read by active duty and former U.S. personnel, puts a finer point on the connection between the K-12 education of military-connected children and readiness.

Over one-third of respondents, 35 percent, said that dissatisfaction with a child’s education was or is “a significant factor” in deciding whether to continue military service. At the same time, 40 percent of respondents said that they have either declined or would decline a career-advancing job at a different installation to remain at their current military facility because of high performing schools.

While making regular moves around the country is a staple of military life, the findings suggest that neither the armed forces nor local communities have cracked the code on ensuring smooth transitions for the military-connected kids. A whopping 70 percent of respondents said that regularly moving between states added challenges to their children’s education.

The online survey of Military Times readers polled over 200 respondents, with representation from all U.S. military services; 78 percent of respondents have served 11 or more years in the armed forces, and nearly half – 48 percent—current serve on active duty. The survey took place from Jan. 12 – 24.

U.S. military leaders recognize the readiness connection. Pentagon leaders last year unveiled a policy allowing personnel to remain longer at a particular duty station in exchange for extended service. The action was in response to complaints by military parents who are loathe to move if the next duty station has poorly performing schools.

Similarly, the federal government recognizes that being in a mobile military family has the potential to pose significant threats to student achievement. The new K-12 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, created a newly-referenced demographic category — military-student identifier. For the first time, federal law requires states to identify military connected students and track their test scores, attendance and graduation rates.

For Melissa Helmick, an Army spouse, the mobility of military life added a major stress unfamiliar to most Americans.

“We moved every two to three years to a different part of the country or another continent,” said Helmick, a member of the education group Military Families for High Standards. “The pace presented challenges as my children navigated new school systems while, we hoped, gathering sufficient knowledge and ability to succeed in college.”

Hope has its place, but it is an insufficient plan for the thousands of military families with children in the K-12 years. That’s the reason why school districts near military installations are teaming up with non-profits to give military-connected children a better chance at a quality public school education.

One of our organizations, the National Math and Science Initiative, recently provided a $400,000 DoD-sponsored grant to the Knob Noster School District in central Missouri to dramatically expand Advanced Placement (AP) math,  science and English course offerings and provide the necessary supports to ensure student and teacher success. The school district serves 1,600 students, two-thirds of whom have parents assigned to nearby Whiteman Air Force Base.

What precipitated the grant was a push by military personnel with children. “We heard an outcry from military families,” said Superintendent Jerrod Wheeler. “They wanted more academic rigor and challenges for their children. So the grant will allow us to establish seven new AP courses that will benefit military-connected students, as well as the entire student body.”

This type of grant-making for districts that serve military children is essential. It highlights that simply setting high standards is not enough. Districts, especially those with large numbers of military-connected students, must redouble efforts to provide teacher training and evidence-based student supports – ensuring that students are able to meet and even exceed those standards.

The goal is two-fold: to fully prepare students for life after high school and demonstrate to military parents that their children are not being shortchanged academically by their continued service.

Military readiness is a multi-faceted challenge. And the education of military-connected children plays a vital role.

A former U.S. Navy officer, Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. Lingenfelter, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, is senior vice president of state and federal programs at the National Math + Science Initiative.

BY JIM COWEN AND MARCUS S. LINGENFELTER. TheHill.com