Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of the board of Intel, once said that “the biggest ticking time bomb in the U.S. is the sorry state of our K-12 education system.” He invoked that dire metaphor to awaken Americans to the fact that the educational quality of the nation’s workforce will determine our global competitiveness. Yet, the collateral damage from this time bomb, as it slowly detonates, could extend as well to America’s standard of living and civil society. Even the nation’s military readiness is at risk because of the diminished pool of academically qualified potential recruits for the all-volunteer armed forces.
Several realities drive home the severity of the underachievement problem. According to ACT Inc., the nonprofit testing organization, the academic skills needed for success in the workplace are converging with those required for success in the first year of college. Further, the U.S. economy will rely increasingly upon minorities, because they, and especially Latinos, will make up a steadily growing proportion of the adult workforce. Minority students have surged to 42 percent of public school enrollment nationally, up from 22 percent a mere three decades ago.
The challenge for the nation’s schools lies in the fact that these economically indispensable population groups consistently lag farthest behind academically. According to the National Assessment of Educatonal Progress results released last week, 50 percent of Latino and 54 percent of African-American 4th graders registered “below basic” in reading. Of all 4th graders tested in reading and scoring “below basic,” the proportion eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches was 50 percent. But underachievement transcends ethnicity: White students far outnumber those from other ethnic groups and constitute the bulk of all youngsters scoring in the lowest quintile.
Compounding these academic gaps, alarming numbers of Latino and black youngsters drop out of high school. Less documented but no less ominous is the phenomenon of student disengagement—youngsters who lose interest in school and give up trying to achieve.
The enormity and urgency, the gravity and, yes, the persistence of this challenge demand out-of- the-box thinking and creative interventions. My exposure over the years to the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a quasi-military youth corps aimed at turning around the lives of dropouts, persuades me that the “military way” of education and training holds considerable promise.
The U.S. military enjoys a well-deserved reputation for its ability to reach, teach, and develop young people who are rudderless, and for setting the pace among American institutions in advancing minorities. Young people receive military-style education and training in an array of settings, most typically after enlisting in a branch of the military. Various branches partner with local school districts to operate Junior ROTC programs, career academies, and military-like public schools.
These programs share many attributes that seemingly contribute to participants’ success. Some of the salient characteristics include their emphases on the following:
Belonging. Research indicates that belonging to positive youth groups can boost self-confidence and curb risky behaviors.
Teamwork. In the real world, mutual reliance is commonplace, since workers routinely function in units with supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Absorbing this lesson is one of the keys to growing up and getting ahead.
Motivation and self-discipline. Many researchers have identified persuasive linkages between lack of motivation and low achievement. The legendary discipline long associated with military training helps instill the motivation that may be in short supply among some young people.
Valuing and believing in students. Many young people who struggle in school yearn for adults who genuinely value them and believe they can be successful.
Educating the whole child. Dismayed by the predominant focus on testing and accountability, education groups such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development have begun insisting that focusing on the “whole child” will produce better outcomes for youngsters who struggle in school. The ChalleNGe program probably gets the “whole child” philosophy more than most schools do. Its eight core components reflect a commitment to educating the whole adolescent: academic excellence, leadership and followership, responsible citizenship, service to the community, life coping skills, job skills, physical fitness, and health and human hygiene.
Stressing literacy in curriculum and instruction. The military approach to cultivating functional literacy is germane to the problem of students who read poorly. Of course, functional literacy is not the endgame for young people served by quasi-military programs. By focusing literacy training on the content and learning demands of relevant tasks, it is possible in a relatively short amount of time to develop reading competence not only in the tasks at hand, but also in general reading.
Rewards and recognition. In education, the prevailing practice is to recognize and reward the top achievers in any given category. The trouble is that students who are struggling academically or disenchanted with school may perceive these traditional forms of recognition as hopelessly out of reach. The military long ago mastered the art of frequent recognition. Ceremonies and rituals affirm that society values the contributions and accomplishments, be they monumental or modest, of those who are celebrated.
Safety and security. Since the chaos and violence of dangerous communities can spill onto school grounds and even inside the classroom, quasi-military schools stress safety and security. This enables educators to teach and students to learn without fear of disruption or danger.
Some schools already embrace combinations or variations of these attributes. This fact and the foregoing lessons gleaned from the military approach to training suggest several potentially important interventions that should be considered:
What will we do for the millions of America’s children who are marginalized academically and destined for social, civic, and economic oblivion in the 21st century?
• Offer reading- and math-immersion programs patterned after the military’s fast-track instructional methods and focused on students who are performing below grade level, or the equivalent of “below basic” on NAEP.
• Establish quasi-military public middle schools and high schools that emulate those attributes and methods of military education and training that are appropriate for schools serving civilian youngsters.
• Create quasi-military public boarding schools that provide safe havens and more intensive, comprehensive, and sustained educational and developmental supports for young people whose home and community environments are especially destructive.
• Establish quasi-military alternatives to incarceration, patterned perhaps after ChalleNGe’s Bravo Company in Oklahoma, for adolescents who have run afoul of the law but genuinely want to straighten out their lives. Those who squandered this second chance would be remanded to reform school or jail.
These promising concepts are too controversial, untested, and potentially costly to take to scale on the fly. That is why each one should be launched in several locales as a demonstration project and be subjected to rigorous evaluation. If the pilot programs produce compelling results in turning around young people teetering on the brink of academic and personal failure, the stage will be set to take the successful models to scale.
Millions of America’s children are marginalized academically and destined for social, civic, and economic oblivion in the 21st century. Their plight stems from many underlying factors: family and economic circumstances beyond their control; their own indifference to achievement and disenchantment with formal education as they’ve known it; and the continuing difficulty that schools face in meeting these young people halfway, and then shepherding them to the doorstep of successful adulthood.
The U.S. military figured out how to nurture and unleash the potential of aimless young people like these generations ago. By demilitarizing and deploying what the Pentagon knows, we can transform this troubled and troublesome cohort of America’s youths into solid citizens and valued societal assets.