Armed With a GED

By Scott J. Cech — December 08, 2008 12 min read
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This is not your average classroom.

All of the 15 students in the English class Christin M. Bradshaw is teaching on a late-October afternoon are dressed identically in desert fatigues and combat boots. All the young men have uniform buzz cuts. Outside, there is the faint popping of distant rifle practice and the shouted commands of drill sergeants marching platoons of soldiers in lock step.

This is, after all, a classroom on an active-duty military installation—part of the 4-month-old pilot Army Preparatory School here at Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army’s largest training base.

And the school’s distinctiveness doesn’t end with the salutes and other martial emblems of its setting. So far, 99 percent of the roughly 400 soldiers who have attended the school have earned a General Educational Development credential.

That passing rate is markedly better than for the U.S. population at large that takes part in the GED program; last year, 72 percent of the roughly 600,000 U.S. adults who completed the battery of writing, reading, social studies, science, and mathematics tests required for the high-school-equivalency credential succeeded, according to the American Council on Education, the Washington-based higher education group that owns, develops, and delivers the GED test.

It is also better than the national high school graduation rate. According to 2005 figures, the latest available from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, an average of 71 percent of 9th graders make it to graduation four years later.

APS By the Numbers

3 weeks
Average Time in Course

Graduation Rate

Of 387 soldiers tested, only one has failed three times.

APS Average GED Score

National Average GED Score

So it is no surprise that the Army Preparatory School’s early success and accelerated schedule—student-soldiers are in class eight hours a day, and on average, they pass the GED after three weeks—have already attracted the notice of civilian educators hungry for new approaches to boosting graduation rates.

“I think there is a very deep reservoir of knowledge that the military has ... that’s worth sharing with folks in K-12,” said Hugh B. Price, who is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a former president of the New York City-based National Urban League.

No one suggests it would be possible to replicate a military-operated campus at a public school. But educators both inside and outside the Army Preparatory School believe its experience is far more applicable to mainstream schools than education policymakers might guess.

Soldiers enrolled in the school participate in daily physical training before dawn.

“Without saying this is a sure-fire bet,” said Mr. Price, who is an expert on military-style education but is not connected to the Army’s program, “there’s a lot of potential in this arena that makes sense for public schools.”

Keeping Troop Levels Up

Of course, the Army isn’t necessarily interested in education for education’s sake. While civilians tend to view the nation’s dropout rate as an academic-preparation or economic-competitiveness issue, the Army sees it as an impediment to its ability to field enough soldiers.

Along with the other branches of the military, the Army’s minimum education goal is that 90 percent of enlistees will have a high school diploma, allowing up to the remaining 10 percent to have a GED instead.

With so many soldiers deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintaining those academic standards has proved to be a challenge, given the service’s other criteria. Those include physical, legal, and age requirements.

“Only three out of 10 Americans are eligible for the Army, and you and I both know not everyone wants the Army,” said Capt. Brian Gaddis, the school’s commanding officer. “If this [high school] dropout rate continues to progress, the Army sees that as a problem.”

Sgt. 1st Class Kester Dozier, center, leads a platoon of fresh graduates of the Army Preparatory School. Civilian educators have visited the school to learn from its success at helping Army recruits quickly earn a General Educational Development credential, or GED.

Capt. Gaddis gives primary credit for his school’s achievements to its teachers—civilian certified teachers hired by Stanley Associates, the Arlington, Va.-based military contractor that handles the actual teaching at the APS. It also helps that, to qualify for the school, recruits must score in the top half on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB—the armed forces’ test of basic math and reading skills.

But the fact that the students are already soldiers, subject to direct orders and military discipline, is clearly also a central factor.

“A lot [of APS soldiers] have quit everything they’ve tried in life, but they realize when they get here we don’t allow them to quit,” said Capt. Gaddis. “They’re soldiers. They can’t quit.”

APS students, who range in age from 17 to 34, but are typically 20 or 21, have already taken their oaths and gotten their haircuts and uniforms, but haven’t yet gone to basic training. They rise at 5 a.m. for an hour of physical training, hustle down breakfast, and are in class until they get marched in formation to the mess hall for lunch.

Then it’s back to the books until 2 p.m., when they receive “soldierization training”—basic instruction in drill, military courtesy, map reading, and other necessities of military life. After more classwork, dinner, and study hall, there’s homework; then it’s lights out at 9.

No iPods. No cellphones. No MySpace or Facebook. And there’s always a sergeant around to make sure things go exactly as they should.

“We have 100 percent of their attention,” Capt. Gaddis said of the recruits.

The curriculum is equally free of frills. When asked what texts the soldiers use, Duane C. Norell, a retired Army infantry major and former Minnesota high school teacher who coordinates the teachers, pointed to a series of commercially available GED practice books. The homework is the same: page after page of practice test questions in each of the five areas covered in the GED—mathematics, science, reading, writing, and social studies. Students regularly take Tests of Adult Basic Education practice tests in reading and language arts, mathematics computation, and applied mathematics until their scores suggest they’re ready for the GED itself, which they can take up to three times. The school employs three civilians full time just to administer all the tests.

Teaching to the test “is what we do,” Mr. Norell said frankly.

And yet the school’s teaching format and pedagogy are strikingly flexible. No bells chase students from class to class on a predetermined schedule. Students who need one-on-one help can stay in the classroom during soldierization training.

Classes are set up so that students who pass the GED are immediately shipped out to basic training, leaving those who need the most help to get the most attention. Student-to-teacher ratios at the APS usually start out at 20-to-1, but routinely fall to around 5-to-1 toward the end.

The school also extensively practices peer tutoring: Each student is assigned a “battle buddy” whose academic strengths match his or her partner’s weaknesses.

Teachers Have Freedom

Soldiers enrolled in the Army Preparatory School jog down the streets of Fort Jackson before dawn as they participate with the rest of their company in “fun run” in military formation. Educators at the school and beyond credit the disciplined environment as a key to the school’s success at getting recruits to pass the GED.

And there are teaching techniques that seem surprising on a military base.

In Ms. Bradshaw’s English class, for example, she had her students read lyrics from popular songs—first as poetry, then along with music from her portable CD player.

“Just remember—we’re looking for meanings that are not obvious, right?” she said, passing out the words to “The Scarlet Tide,” a song performed by Alison Krauss for the 2003 movie “Cold Mountain,” about a wounded soldier’s perilous trip back home to his sweetheart in the last days of the Civil War.

“Yes ma’am,” said the soldiers, whose platoon name was “Outlaws.”

“‘We’ll rise above the scarlet tide’—you get that? It means we’re going to get through this together.”

After hearing the song—a darkly hopeful adagio—one soldier noted, “It’s about perseverance.” Then the class parsed an old Joni Mitchell tune, gently teasing their teacher about the song’s age—and her own.

They finished up with a crowd-pleaser, analyzing a rap song by Linkin Park.

Pvt. Romaro Monigan works on math problems at the APS, which some experts see as offering ideas for educators in public schools.

“They realize their primary goal is to get students to pass the test, but they take every opportunity they can to teach,” Mr. Norell said of the teachers he supervises, some of whom use more traditional pedagogical styles. “I’m looking for results. How exactly they get there—that’s up to them.”

Not surprisingly, that’s an attitude the teachers appreciate.

“No parent calls, no administrators breathing down your neck,” marveled Ms. Bradshaw, who previously taught for five years at a South Carolina public middle school. “If I could do this the rest of my life, I would.”

“They actually get to teach—they’re not the traffic cops at these schools,” said Mr. Price, the Brookings Institution scholar who helped conceive and launch the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Corps, a quasi-military program for high school dropouts. “It’s a calm, safe environment. There’s no reason you can’t create that in a nonmilitary fashion.”

That’s exactly the hope of civilian educators eager to discover how to translate the Army Preparatory School’s 99 percent GED passing rate into improved graduation numbers at public schools.

“We would love to have that statistic,” said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education. Ms. Welburn and other NASBE officials visited Fort Jackson in September, just a month after the Army’s school had started up, and came away highly impressed.

“If we can learn their lessons for accelerated remediation, that’s going to be a way we’re going to have to go,” she said.

The Army itself is also looking into offering courses leading to a high school diploma, and if the APS’ record in producing GED-qualified soldiers continues, officials may expand the program or replicate it at other basic-training installations in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Mr. Price said he isn’t surprised at the school’s success. He pointed to the results of a two-year experimental education program conducted by two teachers and the military in the early 1990s.

Aimed at giving would-be recruits enough remedial education so that they could pass the ASVAB, it sequestered about 30 students at a time on a Mississippi community college campus. They stayed in dormitories and followed a regimented schedule of academics, study, physical training, and life-skills classes. In an average of six weeks, 88 percent of the 300 students who participated in the two-year project made gains of two to three grade levels in reading comprehension and math.

“When you look at how quickly these military programs get math and English levels up, it makes you wonder what would happen if you tried it [elsewhere],” Mr. Price said.

Pvt. Derek Thomas, left, works on a group project in Christin Bradshaw’s reading and writing class at the APS, where GED practice books are the main texts but teachers are given flexibility in their classrooms.

Russell A. Gallagher, an assistant principal at West Philadelphia High School, a 931-student public school in Philadelphia, has apparently been doing just that. Without doing anything overtly military, but borrowing the military’s sense of firm and consistent rules, the retired Army lieutenant colonel said he, his principal, and other school officials, including a retired Marine colonel, have helped turn the school around.

In one year, said Mr. Gallagher, who used to be the Philadelphia school system’s citywide director of Junior ROTC programs, the proportion of seniors who graduate from West Philadelphia High has climbed from 60 percent to 87 percent. Over the same time, he said, violent acts at the school—once one of the city’s most dangerous—had declined by 52 percent, and attendance increased by more than 10 percent, to about 85 percent.

“Certain procedures work no matter what—leadership is leadership, no matter where you are,” Mr. Gallagher said. “The military doesn’t do anything magic—it’s structure, organization, and system, rather than having some kind of chaos.”

At the Army Preparatory School itself, opinion about whether its blend of military discipline, intensive test prep, and teacher flexibility could be duplicated is mixed.

“Part of what we do is just reaching them as a person,” said Brandon Ferguson, a former elementary school teacher. “You’re their teacher, father, mother, counselor—I think you can take that to any school.”

Hank Taylor, a former Army medic who now teaches math at the APS, isn’t so sure.

“I think the discipline is what makes it work,” he said. It’s exceedingly rare that a soldier gives him trouble, he said. But if it happens, “I have the [sergeant] come in and remove him,” Mr. Taylor said. “There are things that happen here that couldn’t happen in a public high school.”

Critic Calls School ‘Exploitative’

Applicability aside, not all educators think the idea of a military-inspired school, whatever its success rate on the GED, is a good idea.

“Many people look at education as a business model, with results and performance as the goal,” Arlene Inouye, a language specialist at Roosevelt High School and Garfield High School in Los Angeles, said in an e-mail. Ms. Inouye, the founder and head of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, a Los Angeles-centered nonprofit organization of educators opposed to military influences on schools, called the Army school “exploitative and unconscionable.”

“If we didn’t spend a majority of federal dollars on the military, we could use this money for health care and higher wages and other conditions that would support students to complete school,” she said. “This trend of military academies and prep schools may be successful in getting students to pass the GED and sending them to war. It’s not for the students’ sake.”

Teacher Christin Bradshaw leads an English lesson in her Army Preparatory School classroom. She works longer hours than she did in the middle school where she taught for five years, but enjoys teaching adults.

But for many recruits who want to join the armed services, military life represents upward financial and social mobility.

“I’m actually real grateful to this program,” said Jeremy Greenwood, a 22-year-old soldier who had selected the airborne infantry to be his military specialty. Mr. Greenwood said he came within four credits of graduating from high school, but ended up leaving school and working in “dead-end jobs.”

He summarized the difference between high school and the APS this way: “When you’re in high school, the teachers tell you to do work. [Here], if sergeant finds out you’re not doing your work, they won’t let you not do it.”

As for the risks of being an active-duty soldier in a time of war, the recruits at the APS know what they’ve signed on for.

“Nobody wants to be deployed,” said Amanda Grace S. Holstein, an 18-year-old APS soldier from California. But, on the other hand, she wants to become a combat field medic.

Although Ms. Holstein had attended a gifted-and-talented magnet middle school, she left high school in 11th grade for an unaccredited alternative school.

She said she wants to become an emergency medical technician or registered nurse when she gets out of the Army—something the service’s offer of $40,000 toward college would help make possible.

“EMTs and RNs are always in demand,” Ms. Holstein said. “The sooner I get my GED, the sooner I’m going to be living my life.”

Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Armed With a GED


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