Military readiness can be defined in a number of ways: the ability of a military unit “to accomplish its assigned mission” or “accurately defining expected threats and resourcing the military to counter them.” More often than not, the issue of readiness is framed as a question of whether or not service members are adequately trained and properly equipped.
But a fighting force — even one as formidable as the United States military — isn’t truly ready unless its members have confidence that their needs are being addressed on the home front. For service members, a major component of readiness is knowing that as they move from base to base with family in tow, the quality of their children’s education doesn’t suffer. Currently, though, readiness is being negatively impacted because many military families are making decisions about whether to leave the armed forces or to accept a move to a particular duty station based in part on the quality of the surrounding schools. These choices can create a brain drain that ultimately undermines the nation’s fighting force.
A recent survey of current and former military personnel conducted by my organization, the Collaborative for Student Success, along with the Military Times, a leading publication widely read by active duty and former U.S. military personnel, puts a finer point on the connection between the quality of K-12 education of military-connected children and readiness.
More than one-third of respondents, 35 percent, said dissatisfaction with a child’s education was or is “a significant factor” in deciding whether to continue military service; 40 percent said they either have declined or would decline a career-advancing job at a different military installation to remain at their current military facility “because of high performing schools.” When asked, “Did moving between states as part of your military service add challenges to your children’s education,” 70 percent answered yes.
The vast majority of survey respondents — 90 percent — reported having spent more than five years in the military. They have years of experience and expertise that our armed forces can ill-afford to lose.
Their core concern is one that all American parents contend with: schools with standards that are inconsistent from district to district or state to state and that, in many instances, don’t adequately prepare children for career or college. But what sets military families apart is that, by design, they are highly nomadic. Our armed forces function more effectively when officers and enlisted personnel, with their varied roles and tenure, are rotated among the many U.S. military installations. Children in military families attend as many as nine schools during their K-12 years.
The result: Over a million military-connected children, most of whom attend public schools, are exposed to the vagaries of our educational system far more than their peers in civilian families. As the Military Child Education Coalition reports, there is no “consistent school-based data on the academic health of these students” and without such data, “decisions about children, time, money, and initiatives are at risk of being based on supposition rather than reality.” Military parents are often left to make career-related decisions based on keeping kids in schools they are comfortable with or moving their families and placing kids in unfamiliar schools where they might wind up either ahead of or behind their new classmates.
A new assessment of several states with large military populations found that military families face a number of education obstacles, with the performance of students varying dramatically depending on geography. The Lexington Institute concluded that a shortage of high-quality educational programs for military-connected students, such as Advanced Placement classes in high school, “often restricts educational opportunities, negatively impacts educational achievement, causes military families to make tough choices, inhibits quick assimilation into school communities, and can reduce a family’s satisfaction with a military career.”
The study focused on four states with large military populations, including Virginia. Among the findings, it noted overall success in the state, which has a wide distribution of military families and has military kids in every district. But it also found that “many districts struggle to meet the academic and social emotional needs” of military-connected students.
U.S. military leaders are beginning to recognize the readiness connection.
Before he retired, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno indicated that local school performance would be a factor in the placement of Army units around the country. If state and local officials intend to keep military bases in their communities, Odierno said in 2013, “they better start paying attention to the schools that are outside and inside our installations. Because as we evaluate and as we make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria.” He commissioned a study, highlighting which schools are successful — and which are not — to examine the quality of schools that serve the children of soldiers.
Last year, then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter unveiled a policy allowing service members to remain at a particular duty station for an extended period in exchange for extended service.
And the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, taking effect next year, creates a tool, the “military student identifier” number, that will “allow schools to keep tabs on test scores, graduation rates” and other metrics for military-connected students.
Advocates for military families are hopeful these developments signal policy changes to come, changes to ensure consistent, quality education for the kids of those who serve. These steps also represent an acknowledgment that the education of service members’ children is an integral part of maintaining readiness in the world’s most capable fighting force.