Editor’s Note: Staff Writer Daarel Burnette II covers state education policy. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.
Why do black students whose parents serve in the military so significantly outperform their peers from black civilian families? This question has for years stumped researchers, but a new data-reporting requirement for military-connected students under the Every Student Succeeds Act could provide some insights for practitioners and policymakers serving America’s increasingly mobile students overall.
Moving just once for any student has the potential to derail the student’s academic trajectory.
And yet black military-connected students, who move on average six to nine times before they graduate high school, consistently perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and on state exams not only better than black students from civilian families, who on average rarely transfer schools, but also almost as high as their white civilian- and military-connected peers. That gap has only continued to narrow in recent years.
I first came across this emerging research about seven years ago. It was early on in my career as an education reporter, and I was writing frequently about how Minnesota’s schools—some of the best in the nation—had so dramatically left their black students behind.
In my personal life, I was grappling with the lingering effects of an academically and socially disjointed childhood.
ESSA’s little-discussed Military Student Identifier is a big opportunity. Scroll down to read how two researchers suggest school and district leaders can make the most of the new reporting requirement.
As the son of a black Air Force officer, I attended 12 schools before my high school graduation. At some of these schools, I served as class president, was active in the theater and band programs and was a B-average student. At other schools, I was bullied, frequently suspended for fighting, and barely passed many of my classes.
Our family’s moves came swiftly and almost always halfway through the school year. I witnessed many times over my mother in a school’s main office, gripping a tattered manila folder stuffed with medical records, report cards, and teachers’ notes.
Was it possible, I wondered in retrospect, that in the chaos that military life is bound to bring, my parents had somehow dodged the more-often-than-not hyper-segregated schools, low expectations, teacher bias, and harsh disciplinary practices that so frequently plague black children’s academic experiences?
In my search for answers, researchers and practitioners pointed me to an aggressive, decades-old movement among military families to improve the quality of schools on and around military bases. That emphasis has resulted in teachers who have grown accustomed to working with a transient student population, and to an exaggerated—but necessary—focus on students’ transition between schools.
That’s not all. Military officials, who sometimes sit on local school boards, also demand smaller class sizes, after-school programs, qualified teachers, and a slate of course offerings so students can tap into their diverse interests. This sort of heavy accountability has a trickle-down effect for black families who otherwise would hold little political capital to improve schools in civilian life.
Orientation for new students is complete with tours, lunch buddies, and lots of introductions. It lasts for months, rather than days.
In order to assimilate new students into the social ecosystem—what I remember to be the most vexing part of being the new kid—sports teams and after-school clubs have open slots for newcomers throughout the year.
Students are tested two to three times to figure out which classes to best place them in.
And administrators at these schools, aware of the emotional distress that comes with having a parent who may be deployed to a war overseas for months at a time, work to assure a higher staffing level of school psychologists than is typical at most schools.
So much of the debate over what has caused America’s black students to perform at significantly worse rates than their white classmates is wrapped up in stereotypes and assumptions about what is and is not happening in the classroom and what is and is not happening in black families’ homes.
These debates are often devoid of clean and nuanced data, and often fail to consider powerful anecdotes that detail how so many black families, despite America’s racist past, have managed to send their children to and through college.
For both my grandfathers, the military provided an escape from the suffocating and violent grip of racially segregated Mississippi. But many black soldiers, including my grandfathers, did not benefit from the GI Bill, and both my parents were raised in segregated and under-resourced neighborhoods.
Integration came halfway through my parents’ K-12 experience, and the military, for my dad, offered a way to pay his way through college.
“We spent a great deal of time trying to find the best for our children and being sure they were able to have what we ‘perceived’ we didn’t,” my parents recently told me in a long (and therapeutic) email exchange.
Many of the 12 schools I attended in the 1990s provided the things military associations are now pushing to replicate. Many, for a variety of complicated reasons, did not.
While the data on black military-connected students is promising, there are still significant challenges today. Gifted students and students with special needs in military communities perform significantly worse than their civilian peers. Curriculum, standards, and the formats of transcripts vary dramatically between districts and states, making it especially hard for teachers to assess and place incoming students.
And, though it’s narrowing, there is still, after all, a performance gap between black and white military-connected students, which means discrimination and lack of access is still occurring.
ESSA requires states to track and publicly report the achievement rates of military-connected students.
For those researchers, practitioners, and advocates who care about the success of black children, the wealth of information now available through ESSA provides an opportunity to learn about what works.
What Clues Does ESSA Offer for Military-Connected Students?
By Doug Mesecar & Don Soifer
This school year, an important requirement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act—the Military Student Identifier—goes into effect. Because of the new mandate, student performance data for the nation’s 1.2 million military-connected students will soon be publicly available for the first time.
Implemented to their potential, these assessment data should provide families, teachers, administrators, and researchers with a clearer understanding of how these students are performing. They could also help to provide a deeper understanding of what academic and nonacademic programs are working and not working for these highly mobile students.
Military-connected students have a greater than 50 percent chance of moving to a new school each year, an astounding level of transition and disruption. They are also at a much greater risk of receiving an uneven and inconsistent education due to different state content standards and graduation requirements, among other factors.
Educators serving military-connected students observe that while these students generally demonstrate resilience and adaptability, the frequent transitions and the stress associated with their parents’ wide-ranging deployments make effective and timely social-emotional support critical for students, including responsive counseling, peer-to-peer groups, and recognition of the contributions of the military. The impact of the lack of such support merits further research, but can potentially negatively affect a student’s academic outcomes and future opportunities.
A report we published in September 2018 for the Lexington Institute and the Collaborative for Student Success, “Student Success, Getting School Districts Ready for the Military Student Identifier,” identifies a number of essential practices for educators that can be used for benchmarking district and school programs serving military-connected students. These practices include ensuring:
• Direct social and emotional support for military-connected students and efficient intake systems for identifying these children’s academic and nonacademic needs;
• School and district leaders who use data on individual student progress to keep students from falling behind and who organize focused training for teachers on the unique needs of military-connected students;
• Communities that hold high expectations for all students and systems that produce timely and thorough communication with families and establish a strong relationship between school district and base leadership.
As jurisdictions look to implement the new identifier, there is an opportunity for increasing their understanding—and ours—of how this important and diverse population of learners is progressing through their schooling, and how effective policy and practice can lead to improved outcomes for them all.
Doug Mesecar and Don Soifer are research fellows for education at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Black Achievement Paradox