Families & the Community

Parents’ Deployments Found to Exact a Toll on Students’ Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 19, 2011 4 min read

After nearly a decade of U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, extended deployments have become a new norm—and an academic and emotional burden—for military children.

Army children coping with a parent’s long-term deployment—19 months or more—have lower test scores than their peers, including other military children, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.’s Arroyo Center, in Santa Monica, Calif., which conducts research for the military. Yet their problems can fly under the radar of school staff who have not been trained to support them, researchers found.

“Unfortunately, we don’t find [the results] surprising,” said Kathleen Facon, the chief of educational partnerships for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which operates military schools on bases. “One of the greatest difficulties military children will face, regardless of additional stresses of relocation and school transition, is the effect of being apart from one or both parents who have been deployed.”

Deployment Deficits

Children of Army parents away on extended military deployment falter in math and language arts performance, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.’s Arroyo Center, which studies the military. Looking at students in North Carolina and Washington state, researchers found that military students’ scores were particularly low, compared to peers, when their parents had been deployed for 19 or more months.

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SOURCE: RAND Corp. Arroyo Center, “Effects of Soldiers’ Deployment on Children’s Academic Performance and Behavioral Health”

The RAND researchers studied more than 44,000 students in North Carolina and Washington state who had parents of any rank in the active or reserve Army or Army National Guard who were deployed between 2002 and 2008. They also conducted interviews with staff at 12 schools that served high percentages of military children.

While the standard Army deployment time is 12 months, that was extended to 15 months from early 2007 to August 2008, and researchers found the down time between deployments had shrunk considerably from the Army’s stated goals of two years for active and four years for reserve service members. Researchers found that the cumulative time parents were away mattered more than the number of deployments.

Academic Difficulties

Overall, every month a parent is gone seems to hurt a student’s academic achievement a little, researchers found. In Washington, for example, each additional month of deployment was associated with about an average 1.18-point difference in the reading achievement scale score.

High school students did not show significant ill effects from parents’ long deployments. However, the cumulative effect of 19 or more months of absence by a parent led to bigger problems for younger students, particularly for middle school students. In North Carolina, middle school students with parents on these extended deployments had scores .05 of a standard deviation lower in reading and .06 in math than did military students whose parents were deployed less than 19 months or not at all. In Washington their scores were .13 standard deviation lower in reading and .14 lower in math, compared to students with parents on shorter deployments.

For perspective, Washington’s gap was about as big an effect on student achievement as a landmark experiment known as the Tennessee STAR study, found for reducing class sizes to less than 16 students.

Moreover, military families, already a highly mobile group, tend to become more so during deployments, the report found. Students may live with a remaining parent, extended family, or friends, and change homes during the course of the year, leading to missed school. Teachers reported anecdotally in the RAND study that children of deployed personnel were more likely to miss school or homework assignments.

School Supports

Department of Defense schools on bases, which educate about 20 percent of children of active-duty military members, include intense supports for children of deployed service members, said Tricia Cassiday, the DoDEA director of pupil personnel services. Many schools include faculty who are on active duty and may be deployed, so “even in areas that are not highly deployed, the school community is a military community and eligible for full support to their particular [military] mission,” Ms. Cassiday said.

Counselors and administrators prepare students with classes on the challenges of deployment and hold small-group discussions throughout the deployment to talk about specific problems, such as fear and anxiety, changing family roles, and relationship skills, Ms. Cassiday said. The schools also recruit service members returning from deployment to “talk to the kids about the geography, let them see a camel spider, things that will interest them” and help them feel connected to their deployed parents, she said.

By contrast, the RAND researchers found regular district school staff, even those close to a military base, frequently are left out of the support loop. Children of deployed reservists are especially likely to be overlooked.

“Teachers and counselors told us that, in many cases, the only way they learn a child’s parent has been deployed is when the child’s grades are dropping, and the parent or guardian informs the school that the mom or dad was deployed,” said Amy Richardson, the lead author of the report and a policy researcher at RAND.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Parents’ Deployments Found to Exact a Toll on Students’ Learning

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