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Opinion: Educational equality for military families is worth fighting for

Mar. 19, 2014 - 04:02PM   |  
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As a nation, we must regularly ask if we are satisfying our commitment to the men and women of America’s armed forces. Frequent debate revolves around military pay, housing and medical attention. But how often do we consider the well-being of American military families, and specifically, our responsibility to provide a quality education to the children of our military men and women?

It’s a conversation we should be having.

Military life is punctuated by frequent moves. It is not uncommon for children of military families to change schools several times, often in the middle of an academic year.

As the son of a career soldier, I moved with my family every couple of years and, in fact, I attended three different schools in fifth grade alone. My personal experience is not unusual. Our men and women in uniform and their families answer these calls unwaveringly, every time the nation asks. We owe them a pledge that we will meet their family’s needs.

The children of active-duty military personnel will change schools an estimated six to nine times before graduating high school. My three daughters, for example, moved a total of 11 times before graduating. Each attended three different high schools. And their experience is the norm for many American military families.

Emotional adjustment and growth of high school kids are difficult enough without the associated strain of a nomadic life. But through their own hard work, perseverance and even luck, my girls succeeded academically, even though the educational standards to which they were held in each location were different, and as unpredictable as the weather.

These disparities in what is expected of students puts a strain on military families. Students are often compelled to repeat materials they already have learned, causing boredom and apathy, root causes of dropouts and behavioral issues.

Worse still, many students find themselves behind and miss out on key concepts altogether. Once a child falls behind in the classroom, it becomes harder and harder to catch up.

Common Core State Standards address these problems by establishing clear benchmarks to ensure that once a student completes one grade, he or she is prepared for the next, and that upon graduation, prepared to enter college, the military or the workforce. In other words, the student has choices for life after high school.

The Common Core State Standards are uniform so that students across the U.S. — from San Diego to Montgomery to Fayetteville to Watertown — will start each grade with the same opportunity and not get left behind along the way.

Some parents worry Common Core Standards will diminish school autonomy. In reality, they will create greater clarity about how students should be performing so that educators can teach more substance, comprehension and individual thought. They will allow students to focus on material rather than testing so that they are better prepared to step into a job or into college ready to compete and excel.

We want to encourage creativity in the classroom. Creativity only exists and can be realized if it is bounded within a set of standards that everyone acknowledges and can be measured against. Creativity can not thrive where standards do not exist. The greatest interpretive jazz musicians do not create eclectic musical scores without years in hard training, measuring themselves against known standards. They crawl then walk then run … and then they soar.

In 2010, the Department of Defense Education Activity, the agency responsible for overseeing all military school programs, adopted the Common Core Standards. It joined 45 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories in recognizing the need for uniform educational standards and a system of strong accountability.

Recently, in the face of opposition, several states have wavered over implementing Common Core Standards. These decisions must be made at the state and local level, but as any military family can attest, returning to the status quo will hurt those who surrender their lives in service to our country.

The call of service bears many burdens. A quality education for the children of the families who answer that call, no matter where they are, should not be one of them. Let’s work together to complete the work Common Core Standards have begun.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks is a former commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center. He is a co-founder and partner in Willowdale Services, a firm focused primarily on assisting post-service veterans with launching and growing private-sector business ventures.

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