In May 2010, the National Security Strategy identified the need to strengthen the US educational system as an integral part of our national security interests:
The United States has lost ground in education, even as our competitiveness depends on educating our children to succeed in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation. We are working to provide a complete and competitive education for all Americans, to include supporting high standards for early learning, [and] reforming public schools….
The National Strategic Narrative considered education one of the nation’s three primary investment priorities:
By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.
A few months ago, my colleague Sam Clovis also argued that “public education reform must be part of any serious discussion about national or homeland security.”
He outlined the abysmal state of American schools and some of its consequences:
- …Forty years ago, the United States was number one in academic performance in the world. Today, the US ranks twenty-fourth is math and twenty-fifth in science.
- Fewer than 35 percent of students achieve basic proficiency at grade level.
- The overall high school graduation rate for the country is around 70 percent. Some 1.2 million children drop out of school during each academic year. Dropout rates among minorities is alarming, with Native Americans’ dropout rate at 49 percent, African Americans’ at 45 percent, and Hispanics’ at 44 percent.
- Of all individuals incarcerated in the country, 68 percent lack a high school education.
- No major city in the nation has a graduation rate above 64 percent. Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Antonio have graduation rates of 38 percent, 44 percent, and 47 percent, respectively.
- Current unemployment rates for individuals with less than a high school education is 16 percent, nearly twice the national rate.
- Closing the performance gap between the US and other developed nations – between minorities and between similar schools – would add $2.31 trillion to the gross domestic product of the nation. This would mean an additional $415 billion in revenue at the national level and $138 billion at the state and local level.
Clovis’ wants to
…call the attention of my homeland security colleagues to the idea that public education reform must be part of any serious discussion about national or homeland security. A better-educated citizenry will be less dependent on government and more independent in times of crisis. A better-educated citizenry will be more attentive to issues and challenges at the state and local level and more engaged at the national level. A better-educated citizenry will cost less in public funding and will contribute more to the public coffers. Ultimately, a better-educated citizenry will be the guarantor of security for the nation and liberty for the individual.
So, what to do about this?
The Bush Administration championed No Child Left Behind. The Obama Administration created the Race to the Top. Both programs rely on standardized testing and government (sometimes federal, sometimes state) micro-oversight of schools and curriculum.
The results of No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top are mixed. Both initiatives have detractors and supporters, with anecdotes and studies to support their varied claims of success and failure.
I came across a story by Michael Winerip about the 2011 the National Assessment of Educational Progress federal testing program results.
“…once again, schools on the nation’s military bases have outperformed public schools on both reading and math tests for fourth and eighth graders.”….
At the military base schools, 39 percent of fourth graders were scored as proficient in reading, compared with 32 percent of all public school students.
Even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools….
In fact, the black fourth graders at the military base schools scored better in reading than public school students as a whole….
…In the last decade, the gap in reading between black and white fourth graders at base schools has decreased to 11 points this year (233 compared with 222), down from a 16-point difference in 2003 (230 compared with 214), a 31 percent reduction. In public schools, there has been a much smaller decrease, to a 26-point gap this year (231 compared with 205) from 30 points in 2002 (227 compared with 197), a 13 percent reduction.
People trying to explains the comparative success of the military education program
…would find that the schools on base are not subject to … No Child Left Behind, or … Race to the Top. They would find that standardized tests do not dominate and are not used to rate teachers, principals or schools.
In the military base schools, standardized tests are used as originally intended, to identify a child’s academic weaknesses and assess the effectiveness of the curriculum.
One military base school principal believes that military base schools are more nurturing than public schools. “We don’t have to be so regimented, since we’re not worried about a child’s ability to bubble on a test,” [the principal] said.
Military children are not put through test prep drills. “For us,” [the principal] said, “children are children; they’re not little Marines.”
There are other factors in play; it’s not just about the schools:
Helping children succeed academically is about a lot more than what goes on inside the schools. Military parents do not have to worry about securing health care coverage for their children or adequate housing. At least one parent in the family has a job.
… A family’s economic well-being has considerable impact on how students score on standardized tests, and it is hard to make exact comparisons between military and public school families. But by one indicator, families at military base schools and public schools have similar earnings: the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches is virtually identical at both, about 46 percent….
The military command also puts a priority on education. [One person], a petty officer who is stationed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., is given time off from work to serve as president of the base’s school board and coach middle school basketball and track teams.
Parents with children at the civilian schools … have not received that kind of support from their employers. “If Dad works in a factory, he gets three absences and he’s fired,” [a principal] said.
One data point does not a panacea make. (For other perspectives, see this link, and this link.) I don’t know enough about the education policy domain to understand any dark side to the military school approach. But the data in Winerip’s story hints at an alternative to the current mechanistic models of school improvement: i.e., hire motivated teachers and principals; let them do their job as they think best; monitor and publish the results; modify activities as needed; repeat.
Is improving public schools a homeland security issue?
I think it is.
As the National Preparedness Goal makes clear, “National preparedness is the shared responsibility of our whole community.”
I do not think it is a Department of Homeland Security issue.
But not everything homeland security belongs to DHS.
The National Preparedness Goal defines success as
A secure and resilient Nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk.
A dilapidated public education system is as much a threat to our national interests as other crumbling infrastructure.
We achieve the Preparedness Goal, in part, by
Protecting our citizens … against the greatest threats and hazards in a manner that allows our interests, aspirations, and way of life to thrive.
Terrorism, disasters, and the usual threat suspects cannot be ignored. But focusing exclusively on past evils will not open the path to a future worth creating.
A resilient nation requires a resilient education system.
Maybe we learn something about how to get there by listening to what the K-12 schools on military bases have to teach.