College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What the Military Might Teach Schools

By Hugh B. Price — February 03, 2015 7 min read
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Three decades ago, a panel appointed by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell issued a scathing critique of America’s schools in a report titled A Nation at Risk. It triggered an avalanche of top-down and bottom-up reforms that engulf public schools to this day. While the achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their white peers has narrowed, and high school graduation rates are climbing, the achievement gap between poor and rich children has widened significantly.

And far too many children continue to struggle. Roughly half of black and Latino 4th graders score “below basic” in reading, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Minority students are disproportionately disciplined, suspended, and held back in grade. The suspension rate among students with disabilities, which includes those with learning difficulties, is outrageous. Disaffected youngsters still drop out in droves.

The modest gains of those students prompted the Schott Foundation for Public Education in 2012, in its “Urgency of Now” report, to venture this arresting projection: "[A]t the current pace of progress, ... it would take nearly 50 years for black males to secure the same high school graduation rates as their white male peers.”

Students who struggle perpetually in school often lack the social and emotional skills needed to succeed academically. They act out, interact poorly with teachers and classmates, pay scattered attention in class, and skip school. Social and emotional competence matters in the workplace as well; employers depend on their employees to possess self-esteem and interpersonal skills; feel pride in work accomplished; and understand goal-setting, self-motivation, and teamwork.


Low-income and minority children are more likely to exhibit academic indifference and behavioral difficulties associated with social and emotional deficits. They face life hazards, such as poverty, divorce, maltreatment, and neglect, that undermine healthy development. Instead of growing out of these problems, they increasingly disengage and eventually drop out of school. And the presence of large numbers of such students can overwhelm teachers who face withering pressure to improve test scores.

Research and real-world experience show that student interventions focused on fortifying social and emotional skills can help improve academic performance and behavior in school and beyond. If asked which American institution embraces this robust commitment to the academic and social development of young people, the U.S. military is probably the least likely to come to mind. Yet the military enjoys a well-deserved reputation for reaching, teaching, and training young people who are rudderless and drifting through life.

One military initiative that offers guidance to young people is the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. A civilian intervention program devoted to turning around the aspirations and life prospects of high school dropouts, it treats academic and social development as coequal objectives. The basic experience consists of a 22-week residential stint on a military base.

Currently, ChalleNGe operates in 27 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, serving roughly 5,000 16- to 18-year-olds a year. Since its inception in 1993, more than 115,000 former dropouts have graduated from the program.

While the program attracts high school dropouts from all walks of life, these young people share certain characteristics, including disenchantment with school, truancy, disruptive and violent behavior, disrespect for teachers, family conflict, poverty, parental and personal substance abuse, drug dealing, gang membership, and physical abuse.

Eight core components reflect the program’s commitment to academic and social development. The “academic excellence” component prepares students to obtain a high school diploma or GED certificate or, at a bare minimum, become functionally literate and employable. Through leadership and “followership” training, cadets earn opportunities to lead their peers, while also learning to heed the instructions of their teachers and mentors. “Responsible citizenship” covers the rights and obligations of citizens, voting, the role of government, and the legal system.

Cadets devote at least 40 hours to community service, such as building a walking path in a park. These activities provide opportunities for experiential learning, where the participants practice their reading, math, planning, and teamwork skills. Military researchers have found that, compared with general literacy instruction, this kind of learning-to-do instruction generates rapid and robust gains in job-related literacy that endure over time.

Through instruction in life-coping skills, participants develop techniques for dealing with anger, stress, and frustration; handling peer pressure; and making constructive choices. Job-skills instruction focuses on exploring career options, developing résumés, filling out job applications, and preparing for interviews. There are also physical-fitness and health- and hygiene-components to the program.

The dual mission of fostering academic and social development drives the staffing configuration. The unique feature of ChalleNGe is the “cadre” staff of military veterans, retirees, and National Guard reservists who are considered the heart of the program. They sit in classrooms and patrol the corridors to keep order so that cadets can learn and teachers can teach. They listen to and counsel the young people. They make sure homework gets done, correct wayward behavior on the spot, and ensure that cadets dress appropriately.

A random-assignment evaluation by the nonpartisan education and policy-research organization MDRC provides convincing evidence that ChalleNGe works. Roughly two years after graduating, cadets were much more likely than members of a control group to have obtained high school diplomas and GED certificates. They were also more likely to have received vocational training, earned college credits, or enrolled in college. And 58 percent of participants held jobs, compared with 51 percent of nonparticipants. They also earned an average of 20 percent more annually.

Although MDRC reported no significant differences in criminal activity or civic engagement, there are promising indications from some sites that ChalleNGe may help curb teenage pregnancy.

The RAND Corp. conducted a cost-benefit analysis using MDRC’s results and concluded that ChalleNGe pays tangible dividends to society. In fact, per cadet, the estimated return on investment is 166 percent. For every dollar spent on the program, it generates $2.66 in benefits to program graduates and society. (Actually, RAND believes that the payoff might even be greater, because the benefits of higher education attainment are not fully captured by the program outcomes in the MDRC evaluation.)

An MDRC survey of ChalleNGe graduates in conjunction with its three-year report revealed that, like other young people their age, they labored to gain and maintain their footing in a job market ravaged by the Great Recession. Nevertheless, the interviewees recounted enthusiastically how ChalleNGe enabled them to break habits and generate profound, positive changes in their attitudes, expectations, and self-confidence. ChalleNGe convincingly demonstrates the value of investing in a new educational paradigm for deeply disengaged students who are ill-served by public schools, as we know them.

I can envision public schools devoted explicitly to both the academic and social development of struggling youngsters. This dual mission would drive the structure, size, curriculum and extracurricular offerings, staffing, schedule, and funding for this enterprise. And such schools should be staffed with an adequate—not skimpy—contingent of “life coaches” who are carefully screened and trained to mentor, monitor, and minister to the social and emotional needs of the students.

Yes, these schools might cost more per student at the outset. But RAND’s cost-benefit analysis provides reason to believe they would save money by graduating more students on time and, ultimately, increase their education levels, employability, and earnings.

The U.S. military figured out long ago how to nurture the potential of aimless young people. Let’s borrow from its playbook and create a new type of school devoted to the academic and social development of students who are laboring academically and in life.

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as What the Military Might Teach Schools


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