As Class 67 gets underway, students will be assessed in a variety of areas, both academic and military.
For example, they will be evaluated on their oral presentations, writing skills, and contributions to the classroom and projects. But they also will be evaluated on their scores on the Army Physical Fitness Test.
"It’s the whole-soldier concept," Defreese said. "We want them to do well in their course work, but we want them to be everything from physically fit to demonstrated abilities from writing to leadership to participation."
The focus on NCOs' ability to write clearly and effectively is not new. On Oct. 1, all soldiers and NCOs preparing to attend a professional military education course, including at the Sergeants Major Academy, will be required to take an English comprehension and writing assessment.
A pilot underway with Basic Leader Course students, most of whom are specialists seeking promotion to sergeant, showed that about 75 percent of those assessed need additional help or coaching.
"Communication is a most vital aspect of leadership, and as an NCO matures, they need to be able to speak and write with authority, to counsel subordinates in writing, and to analyze and describe how to fix problems," Liston Bailey, chief of learning initiatives and innovations for Training and Doctrine Command's Institute of NCO Professional Development, told Army Times earlier this year.
Another key change for students at the Sergeants Major Course is they will no longer be allowed to retake a test.
"If they do happen to take a test and score below the minimum GPA, they’ll be allowed to do some remedial assessments to get it back up to the minimum, but there’ll be no retests," Defreese said.
Retests did not ensure students were truly learning and understanding the material, he said.
"With remedial assessments, we’re pinpointing" the areas where the student needs extra help, said Command Sgt. Maj. Harold Reynolds, director of the Sergeants Major Course.
"We have a vested interest that at every level course we’re responsible for here, that we’re producing the best NCO," Defreese said. "We want them to retain the knowledge. That’s why we went to writing and short essay tests. If you have to write something out, you probably know the material."
To prepare for Class 67, the Sergeants Major Academy tested some of the changes with Class 66 before them. About half of that class’ exams were written instead of multiple choice.
"Even though the tests were more challenging, we had fewer failures on written tests than multiple choice tests," Defreese said.
Class 66 had zero dismissals for academic reasons, while the class before it, Class 65, had eight, he said.
"Part of it is because we’re targeting their deficiency instead of doing random retests," Defreese said. "Our goal here isn’t to fail anybody. The Army’s invested a lot of money by the time somebody gets here to get them ready to be a sergeant major. We owe it to our Army and our NCO corps to try to get them through the school. We’re not letting anybody slip by, but we do have obligations to turn out the best sergeant major we can turn out."
Members of Class 66 wait for their names to be called during graduation from the Sergeants Major Course.
Photo Credit: Army
Sgt. Maj. Tyrone Surmons and Sgt. Maj. David Sweitzer are graduates of Class 66. The men graduated June 17 and are working at the Sergeants Major Academy while awaiting their follow-on orders.
Sweitzer said he enjoyed the written exams.
"It gave me more time to think about it instead of just looking at a boxed answer and trying to pick one," he said. "I retained a lot more from the essays. Doing just the multiple choice, I can easily dump that information and not retain it, but when I sat down and wrote it out, I retained it better."
"The written assignments challenged us students to think outside the box," he said. "It allows us to look at the Army and present an argument on the way forward."
Class 66 also benefited from classroom discussions with students from all specialties and backgrounds, Sweitzer said.
"Being able to talk to everybody else outside our career field really brought a new understanding to things and sharing experiences on the lessons we were being taught," he said.
Surmons said he believes this new way to teaching and testing soldiers will produce better-prepared NCOs.
"I think it’s going to enhance our junior leaders," he said. "Not every answer is going to be in the books."
As for the 575 students in Class 67, they are just about a month into the course. Graduation day is June 22, 2017.
The course so far has "been very challenging, just trying to balance everything that’s going on," said Master Sgt. Keela Smith, a student who also is the class president. "But I think it’s a great course, and I think the way the Army is going is going to be very good for a lot of people. There’s more focus on writing and analysis, education versus training."
Master Sgt. Ronald Flick, a fellow student, agreed.
"What it helps us do is better understand what information they’re trying to teach us here," he said. "We’re not educating ourselves for an exam. We’re educating ourselves to learn information."
Flick said he’s already enjoying being in class discussions with NCOs from different career fields.
"As NCOs prepare to take the step into this part of their career, they need to be prepared," he said. "This is definitely going to be the direction the Army’s going, and hearing some of the way forward with some of the [other levels of NCO education], our soldiers are going to continue to be challenged."
The Army will continue to work on improving NCO education, Davenport said.
"At each level, we’re working on something," he said.
And it also continues to seek feedback from soldiers, including through Davenport’s blogand virtual town hall meetings.
The next one is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Nov. 3, Davenport said. This one will focus on talent management and the many programs available for soldiers, he said.
"Hopefully soldiers will know that we’re listening," Davenport said.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.