Special Report

Uneducated to Serve

Out of necessity the Pentagon has become a believer in education reform.  

By 1.7.11

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Twenty-seven percent of New Jersey's 17-to-20 year old high school grads applying to enter the military flunked the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the test potential recruits must take for successful enlistment. Essentially, one out of every four Garden State residents -- including 34 percent of young black and Latino recruits -- couldn't answer such basic questions as "If three plus X equals six, what is the value of X?" and "If 4 people can run 8 machines, how many machines can 2 people run?"

This isn't just a New Jersey problem. Twenty-three percent of the nation's recent high school grads couldn't pass the ASVAB, flunking out of military service. The problem runs across all races and ethnicities, with one out of every five white young adults and two out of every five young black adults failing the test. Among those who did pass, many didn't score high enough on the exam to get into skilled military positions such as those in surveillance. Just 34 percent scored high enough to join Delta Force or any of the other elite special forces. The ones who managed to score high enough to get in, but fall into the low range, are more-likely to leave the service before completing their tour than those with high scores.

Much of the discussion about America's abysmal public schools has focused on how decades of declining literacy and academic performance weigh heavily on the nation's global competiveness (and on the wallets of taxpayers burdened by decades of near-unchecked spending increases and unfunded teachers pensions).

But increasingly, the nation's educational crisis also weighs heavily on national security and defense. Military leaders have learned all too well from their own analysis of dropouts and General Education Development (GED) recipients that poorly-educated kids make terrible soldiers -- especially in an age in which math and science skills are as important in operating military electronics as they are in high-skilled white- and blue-collar jobs.

For young men and women, especially those from the economic poor, the low quality of education also bars them from entering what has long been a gateway into the middle class and a training ground for life in the civil workforce. This, in turn, further strains the nation's long-term economic prospects as low-skilled grads (along with the 1.3 million kids who drop out of high school every year) land in prison, on welfare, or engaged in some less-than-legal pursuits. This will further fuel the growth of welfare subsidies and bailouts that are draining the nation's long-term economic prospects.

The best solution for this national defense and economic problem in the long run is the one part of President Barack Obama's agenda that actually has bipartisan support even in a less-than-friendly Congress: The array of charter school expansion and school reform efforts -- including the Race to the Top initiative -- that have gained traction in statehouses across the country. The school reform movement may now be able to count the Pentagon as one of its stalwart allies.

SAVE FOR THE PRESENCE OF Junior ROTC members on high school campuses, their counterparts at universities, and service academies such as West Point and Annapolis, few think about the presence of the military in education. But the Pentagon has had a far greater interest in elementary and secondary education than most realize.

Through the Department of Defense Education Activity, the Pentagon operates what would be the nation's 35th-largest K-12 school district, educating 85,714 students on its bases throughout the world. Looking to make it easier for the children of military families living off-campus to transfer from one school to another with few hiccups, it is helping to standardize school transcripts by working with nonprofits to get states to adopt an interstate compact.

The military has played a distinct role in the expansion of federal education policy. In the midst of the Second World War in 1942, the War Department teamed up with the American Council of Education to start the GED program as a way for high school dropouts leaving military service to attend college (and eventually take advantage of the G.I. Bill). This spurred the post-World War II college boom that has made the U.S. the world leader in higher education.

During the Cold War, the armed forces also helped play a part in the expansion of federal education policy thanks to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which led to the creation of the Pell Grant program and the first major increase in federal education spending since the launch of the National School Lunch Program a decade earlier. The law, in turn, helped lead to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal law now known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

But within the last two decades -- and especially after the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq -- the Pentagon has found itself in the same boat as private-sector employers in working around the deficiencies of American public education. Its response has been to launch a series of efforts which have only had mixed success.

Since 1993, the National Guard has operated the Youth ChalleNGe program, which puts high school juniors and seniors through a 22-week period of military training and school lessons. While the Brookings Institution touted the program as a success in a study released last year, Youth ChalleNGe's 46 percent graduation rate for participants is still well below the nation's abysmal four-year graduation rate of 69 percent; the attrition rates of the program's graduates also lag depending on which armed service participants choose to enter.

Over the past five years, the Pentagon has even been forced to lower its own academic standards (including a requirement than 90 percent of troops had to be high school graduates) in order to meet higher recruiting quotas resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the percentage of high school grads recruited into the Army, for example, declined from 84 percent in 2004 to 74 percent in 2008. Starting in 2005, the Pentagon launched GED Plus, a program in which dropouts could obtain GED certificates while enlisting. While the Army halted its GED recruiting last year, GED enlistment efforts continue throughout the rest of the military.

But even the military's own studies show that the GED -- once called the "Good Enough Diploma" by comedian Chris Rock -- is anything but. Forty percent of GED recipients left the service before completing their two-year enlistment, according to a 1996 U.S. Department of Defense study; that's double the attrition rate for high school and college grads. This is why the Pentagon stopped classifying GED recipients as high school graduates during the 1970s -- and why Congress capped the number of GED recipients that could be enlisted 30 years ago.

TROOP WITHDRAWALS FROM IRAQ, along with the sluggish economy, has helped the military recruit fewer dropouts and GED recipients. But it hasn't helped the military in avoiding the high costs of poorly-educated high school grads. Aspiring servicemen with low qualifying scores on the ASVAB are more likely to wash out because they lack strong basic skills and work aptitude. It is one of the reasons why the military loses as many as a third of enlisted soldiers before they complete their two-year tour, costing taxpayers as much as $45,000 per recruit.

The problems for low-skilled high school students -- be it they flunk or sneak in -- is the same: Abysmal reading and math instruction in schools that begins in kindergarten and manifests its damage by high school. Twenty-seven percent of American high school seniors -- including 33 percent of young men who would be potential enlistees -- read Below Basic proficiency on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam of academic skills.

The potential harm to the nation's military readiness -- especially the lack of high-quality recruits who can be brought into the Marines or Army to serve in wartime -- can't be understated. The economic damage is also astounding. Since World War II, the military has proven to be a way for kids from poor families -- including young blacks and Latinos -- to make their way into the middle class; 51 percent of all military recruits came from households earning less than $51,127 a year, just below the median household income, according to a 2008 Heritage Foundation study. But these families attend the very dropout factories and academic failure mills that are fueling the nation's education crisis. As a result, they are shut out of the military and out of high skilled blue- and white-collar work -- and will land in the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

The long-term solutions lie with such efforts as expanding school choice, passing so-called Parent Trigger laws that allow families to restructure schools, and overhauling the costly and ineffective system of near-lifetime employment and seniority-based pay that have long protected low-quality teachers at the expense of students and taxpayers alike. The Pentagon has helped fund military schools in districts in cities such as Oakland and Chicago. It may take making education a national security issue to spur further reform.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.