The Need to Support Students From Military Families
It’s time for America to honor our brave warriors, who have sacrificed so much, by assuring them that we will provide their children with the best public education possible.
For too long, military children in public schools have been overlooked, moving from school to school an average of nine times during their K-12 years and often facing a civilian education system that appears uncaring and uncompromising.
Military students endure the strain of restarting relationships with friends and teachers, keeping up with work in each new school, and dealing with parental deployment. Certainly, some schools have created welcoming environments and academic supports for this group of students—but not enough. The Department of Defense Educational Activity, or DODEA, partnership program is providing leadership and resources to create these supportive public school environments.
Most Americans are not aware that over 2 million students have had parents deployed since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As their parents fulfill their missions overseas, there are too many examples here at home of military students losing credit for courses already taken in another state after a family’s transfer or receiving unexcused absences for spending a day saying goodbye to a mom or dad leaving on deployment.
Many students from military families fall behind in school following multiple moves because there is no funding for tutoring services, or they struggle emotionally because of the roller-coaster of deployments. New research from the Rand Corp. finds that long deployments—19 months or more—take an academic and emotional toll on military children. Army children whose parents were deployed have long scored lower on standardized tests than those whose parents had shorter tours of duty. Teachers and counselors also reported increased social and emotional challenges for children with a deployed parent, according to the study.
With the heavy use of the military reserves and National Guard in these conflicts, many schools don’t even know if they are enrolling children from military families, let alone providing adequate supportive services.
We are at a juncture where some of these problems can be rectified with bipartisan support. For the first time in this country, the needs of military children in schools are being highlighted from the very top.
President Barack Obama’s recently released directive “Strengthening Our Military Families” includes detailed plans for focusing on and improving educational outcomes for military students. First lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, a college educator and the wife of the vice president, are also making strong attempts to draw national awareness to these students’ unique and challenging circumstances by visiting schools that create military-friendly environments. They expanded their efforts in April when they announced an organized campaign focused on supporting military families.
But there is far more that policymakers and education leaders should be doing. Teachers and other school personnel should be educated about the learning challenges faced by the more than 1.3 million military children currently in our nation’s public schools.
Our universities’ schools of education need to provide preservice training for prospective teachers on the issues children in military families bring to the classroom. Teachers and administrators need to recognize how frequent mobility can affect a child’s academic growth and social-emotional development. They should be aware of the upheaval a soldier’s deployment can cause in a household. And they should be equipped with effective strategies for both welcoming new families and integrating respect for the military lifestyle into their teaching practices.
Currently, only two universities are providing master’s-level degree training that focuses specifically on the needs of military students in schools and on creating a school climate that is welcoming and sensitive to the concerns of military families. This means organizations such as the Military Child Educational Coalition, which advocates for the needs of military children and provides resources to families, provide most of the training only after teachers receive their university degrees.
The pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act offers an ideal opportunity for extending best practices found at some military-connected schools—and in DODEA schools—to all students of military families.
Schools should be aware of how many military students they are serving. Transition services, such as assessment and communication between sending and receiving schools, should automatically be in place for both incoming and outgoing students. There should be a system of electronic transfer of records to minimize any delay in appropriate or needed services. Administrative leaders should consider the impact of deployment and frequent mobility when considering school policies. The ESEA reauthorization also provides an opportunity to fully fund the federal impact-aid program so schools have the resources they need to provide these services.
California has just taken the lead by creating a military-connected school-survey module open to all 10,000 schools in the state—a strong step toward better understanding the experiences of military students and parents in public schools. Other states should follow California’s lead.
The voluntary Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children aims to address some of the common education barriers for military students. Through heroic efforts, the military community is addressing the timely transfer of records and working to guarantee that students receive credit for courses taken in other states, and ensuring eligibility for sports and other extracurricular programs. But only 36 states have adopted the compact, and there are no enforcement provisions.
Let’s show military families that our schools will not continue business as usual during the longest war in our history. Let’s invest a down payment of gratitude by supporting military-connected schools in their mission to provide the very best education our nation can offer.
Vol. 30, Issue 33, Pages 27,32