The Slings and Arrows Of Inconsistent Education Standards Greet Military Families from Installation to Installation
This piece was originally published on February 13, 2018 on Medium. The original post is accessible here.
The nation’s 1.2 million military-connected children are a unique demographic among K-12 students, both for the many obstacles they face in acquiring a solid education and for the influence they have over the men and women who fight the nation’s wars.
No other group of children moves so frequently — six to nine times — during a child’s K-12 years. No other group is faced with the consequences of so many inconsistent education standards — catching students up to grade level in a new state, or watching them struggle to sit through material they’ve already learned.
Just as important, no other set of parents is so fundamentally bound to national security. Many of these parents — the backbone of the U.S. military — are making decisions on whether to remain in service to the nation based in part on how their children fare and their educational prospects.
So for our nation’s leaders, and for the school administrators at the state level, it bears much greater understanding of what military families endure when they seek to balance service to their nation with service to their children’s education.
Every military family is different, of course. And yet, there are common touchstones that most all military families encounter as they shuttle from base to base in the course of a military career.
A Common Education Tale
The story of “Michael” is a totem for many military families. Michael is every military child — because so many military families endure similar obstacles in ensuring a quality education for their children while moving so many times. Michael is fictitious, yet to many service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines — his story is all too real, common to anyone who has attempted to serve the nation with a family in tow.
Michael’s educational story is a mixture of tough and frustrating. Good and bad. Satisfying and disturbing. Michael is the middle child of an active duty military family. His dad is a senior non-commissioned officer. His mother is a domestic engineer. He has an older sister and a younger brother.
When he was in pre-school he faced his first family move. He was headed into kindergarten and his family worked to find a setting that would continue his early learning progress and reading readiness.
They landed in a school district where his birthdate held him back from entering kindergarten, and he had to repeat another year of pre-school. While viewed by the district as an opportunity to strengthen him for kindergarten readiness, his family worried about the additional year of costs and finding a curriculum that would keep pace with what he had already mastered as a preschooler.
He didn’t get the opportunity to start kindergarten in that school district. The following year his father received orders to move, which took them to a state where the family had to pay for kindergarten — now stretching educational costs to three years of tuition expenses. First grade in that same setting allowed Michael to continue to grow in an environment where he and his family were both familiar and happy.
But as second grade approached, the family learned they would move again. Michael’s education was important but there were siblings to consider as well, and sometimes families have to determine what is best for most of their learners. So Michael found himself as a second grader busy re-learning the majority of the skills he had mastered the previous year. The lack of challenge impacted his joy of learning and at times his behavior. Frustrated and often bored, he often acted out in school.
Third grade in that same school district was better. He had a teacher he adored and challenging programs. He had opportunities in art and music, added Cub Scouts to his interests and found a place on a soccer team. He felt at home now. He belonged.
During the middle of fourth grade, his dad got new orders — and the family moved yet again. Most military-connected children are educated in the public school systems around bases, because most bases do not have their own dedicated schools. This time, Michael’s family landed on a military installation with access to the school system on base.
A Nomadic, Cross-Continent Education Journey
Michael and his family found a community understanding of their nomadic ways and willing to accommodate where they could to make the transition positive. That same flexibility lasted until Michael completed 6th grade. But just as Michael was feeling self-confident in his abilities, friendships and learning habits, his father’s job sent them across the ocean to a host of new issues to overcome.
In Europe, Michael found himself in a middle school setting for the first time. He had never changed classes or dealt with different teachers for each subject. Block scheduling, which offers days of long instruction for in-depth learning, was foreign to him — as was remaining attentive to the same subject matter for lengthy classes.
Working with different teachers with different teaching styles, on a different schedule, in a different school setting and in a different community was too many differences for him to deal with at once. He fell behind in several subject areas and didn’t have the time or stomach for extra-curricular interests with peers he barely knew.
The following year he bounced back as he matured. And he found his way to after school activities such as music and sports. Michael was fitting in. Michael was beginning to shine. And then, at the end of 8th grade, his father’s orders came through as Michael was gearing up to begin high school.
At least he knew that everyone would be in the same boat — as the new kid in a new school — the freshman. Or so he thought. But at this setting, in this school district back in the U.S., 9th graders finished off the middle school curriculum that Michael already had mastered. In actuality, 10th grade started high school here. Once again, he was odd man out.
The other issue for Michael was a lack of resources in the school district. There was no opportunity to pursue his musical interests because they had no instruments for student use. And the school didn’t use the block schedule format, so he was back to trying to remember his old methods for class movement and success.
The following year, though in the same school district, he had to switch schools again. Everyone did, so that made it a bit easier, but it was in fact yet another educational move for him. A new setting with new rules and procedures.
He started foreign language study. He was able to play soccer. His grades grew strong and he made strong social connections. By junior year, he was running for student office, nominated to the National Honor Society, on the varsity soccer team and fully engaged in high school life.
In Senior Year, New Orders and A New School
Senior year approached, and his family had to wrestle with new orders to move to another state. Should they leave Michael where he was and allow the father to make the move alone? Should the family go forward together? If they did move together, how would Michael fare as a senior in yet another new school?
There were a range of other issues that had an impact on preparation for college. For example, even though he was in the National Honor Society, the accolade would not transfer to the new school because he did not attend the school the required amount of time. He already had taken physics and needed chemistry — but in the new school physics was for seniors and chemistry for juniors. And what about college recommendations? To the teachers at the new school, Michael was an unknown. They would not be able to provide adequate recommendations.
Michael and his family weighed the options, but having the family together was critical to them.
So once again, Michael stepped onto a new campus, surveying new faces and hunting new friends, and attempted to figure out how to satisfy curriculum requirements, athletic goals, extracurricular activities and college preparation. Michael’s K-12 story ends, as it often does for military children, with an acceptance letter at a university for college study. A successful outcome, despite turbulent transitions.
The educational slings and arrows Michael’s military family suffered in the many geographical moves need not have been so difficult.
Why couldn’t he have moved in each instance with every confidence that he would meet with strong curriculum choices, clear athletic rulings, consistent standards for grading performance and similar requirements for clubs, programs and recognitions? A predictable experience.
Until recently, there was a dearth of knowledge to share about military-connected kids like Michael. How were they performing as a group? As individuals? Were they college ready? Did the constant moves have an impact on academic performance? Were military-connected kids performing better in certain regions of the country? It has all been a mystery, with anecdotal conclusions at best and lacking data for educators to share.
But hopefully that may be changing for the better. The K-12 federal education law, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, for the first time requires states to identify military students and track their test scores, attendance and graduation rates as they move from base to base and state to state. What’s more, several organizations supporting military families have produced a concise transition guide. The guide helps parents in the military better plan for the education needs of their children in a new posting.
Our states need to make the most out of the identifier. They need to align with one another and create an education highway that transitions military children across this nation with options they can predict. Coupled with robust efforts by local school officials and parents engaged and using the transition guide, the identifier will ensure that children like Michael don’t have to sacrifice their future for a parent’s service to the nation.
A K-12 educator and Army spouse for decades, Christi Ham is chairwoman of Military Families for High Standards.