27 February 2016

High education standards and the US military

By Jim Cowen and Marcus Lingenfelter
February 24, 2016

The news is filled with stories about how U.S. children are slipping way behind other countries when it comes to key educational benchmarks. But the corollary is that these children grow up -- and as a result of the poor or inconsistent education standards in their younger years, many Americans don't have the grounding to be successful in higher education without remedial classes.

Federal statistics show 19 to 26 percent of all college freshmen are identified as needing remedial courses. That figure typically is lower on four-year campuses and climbs to 60 percent for some two-year schools, according to a recent report from state governors.

The stats are alarming because these are students who have received high school diplomas and thus have been certified as having attained basic educational proficiency.

As a microcosm of the U.S. at large, the military experiences a similar problem with would-be enlistees. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says that of the 21 million Americans aged 17 to 21, “we estimate that only about half are able to meet our high-quality standards on our entry exam – only about half. And when you factor in our standards for physical fitness and for character, only about a third are actually eligible to join the military.”

It is an appalling state of affairs when so few young Americans meet the educational threshold to serve. While symptomatic of a nationwide problem that portends a raft of problems for American economic competitiveness, it also has stark ramifications for our national security if we don’t, or can’t, reverse it.

Fixing the problem starts at the local level – at the neighborhood elementary school where students are first exposed to the level of academic rigor that will either carry them through to successful completion of the military entrance exam, or sink students because they weren’t challenged enough or taught to think critically and to problem solve.

An important ingredient for ensuring a high-quality education for students broadly, and a thus a larger pool of capable military recruits, is adoption of rigorous educational benchmarks. States must provide teachers and students with challenging standards -- whether those standards be the Common Core State Standards or other state-authored standards designed to promote college readiness and prepare students for advanced coursework, especially in math, science.

But simply setting high standards is not enough. Districts must redouble efforts to provide appropriate teacher training and student support, aligned, for example, with the College Board’s Advanced Placement curriculum framework and course objectives, so that students are fully prepared for college-level, post-secondary work.

The Department of Defense Education Activity, which manages K-12 education at 171 DoD schools worldwide for 75,000 children, recently adopted a new set of robust education standards. This is something of a landmark, given the military’s unique position as both a recruiter of young Americans and an educator of the children of servicemembers. It underscores the need for rigorous standards that are just as challenging from time zone to time zone, whether the students are children of civilians or military personnel.

When it comes to K-12 education, what’s good for the children of U.S. servicemembers is good for the nation and for national security.

Back in 2014, the Army’s top recruiting official summed up the devastating problem posed by the diminishing pool of recruits. “There's a reliance on an ever-smaller group of people to serve and defend the country," said Maj. Gen. Allen Batschelet, then the commanding general for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

“What do we do about that and how do we address that concern? That's the big national security question that I'm struggling with today," he added of a situation that has only worsened.

At least part of the answer has to be high standards.

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

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