Is Education Our Military's Achilles Heel?

Is Education Our Military's Achilles Heel?
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Our active duty military men and women have approximately one million sons and daughters who face all the challenges that other children face – and then some. After all, most children do not have to worry that one (or both) of their parents could be deployed to a global hot spot.

As the wife of a 38-year Army veteran, a parent, and an educator, I have seen firsthand the unique stresses that military life places on military families, both the children and the parents. Anything we can do to lessen the day-to-day concerns of these families is paramount. One area where we can make life easier for our military families is addressing some of the unique education challenges their children face.

For example, military families move a lot. It is part of the job description. Thus, it is not unusual for a military child to attend schools in six to nine different locations between starting kindergarten and graduating high school. Sometimes the schools on base are good; sometimes they are not.

In addition to worrying about the quality of schools, military parents also must contend with how these frequent moves will impact their child’s educational progress.

Since states have different education standards, what one state teaches in third-grade language arts may be very different than what another state is teaching in the same grade. This leads to situations where a child may be either ahead of, or behind, his or her new classmates. This often leads to situations where a student is either scrambling to catch up or, perhaps worse, is bored as he or she is relearning material.

Not surprisingly, these stresses build up and impact decisions about whether to stay in the military.

A recent survey of Military Times readers, a leading military trade publication, looked at the impact of education issues on military service.

More than a third of respondents, 35 percent, found dissatisfaction with their children’s education was a significant factor in deciding whether to continue military service. Forty percent said they would decline a career-advancing job at a different installation if they thought the quality of the schools at the new post was below their standards.

These numbers should alarm decision makers. They signal that significant numbers of military parents are putting a quality education of for their children ahead of continued military service. 

If we want to remove some of the challenges military families face, there are several actions policymakers can take.

First, state lawmakers must continue to strengthen content standards. Rigorous and comparable standards, especially in core subjects, are important to minimizing the disruptive impact of frequent moves. Put another way; we need to make sure what students are learning in fifth-grade math in Missouri is similar to what fifth graders are learning in other states.

Many states are already heading in this direction by implementing high, consistent standards. How the states implement the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act will be the real test of their commitment to this effort.

Next, military leaders should continue working to improve the timing of personnel transfers to minimize education disruptions. This means more transfers during the summer months and fewer during the school year. According to a recent study by the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, the Army has taken the lead in doing this; the other services need to catch up.

Finally, states must fully implement the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. The Compact is designed to resolve common education transition issues, such as transfer of records and course placement. While all 50 states have adopted the Compact, few have truly integrated it into their support systems.

These three rather easy steps will improve the educational experience for our military children and go a long way to reducing stress military families face.

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