Making Life Easier for the New Kids in Class

Making Life Easier for the New Kids in Class
Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle via AP
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As we gear up for the next school year, students are getting ready for new teachers, new topics and new experiences.

But in military towns such as Killeen, Texas, Fayetteville, North Carolina and San Diego, California, a significant number of students are getting ready for something else – their life as the new kid in school.

Given the average military-connected student moves six to nine times between kindergarten and graduating high school, many of the sons and daughters of U.S. service members get used to this role.

But the frequent moves have led to questions about the academic challenges these 1.2 million military-connected students face. How are they performing? Are they ready for life after high school? Are military-connected kids performing better in certain regions of the country than others?

For the first time ever, we have the opportunity to get answers to these questions, if states are willing to take the steps necessary to find them.

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), formally mandated a tool that advocates for military families and military-connected students have long sought – a military student identifier.

While many states have been monitoring the progress of their military-connected students for some time, few have made that information public, and it’s uncertain if any have used the information collected in a systematic way to make changes.

As part of ESSA, the military student identifier requires every state to keep track of the performance of military-connected students in the same manner as they keep track of other student groups and report the data in the state's annual report card. This includes following their test scores, attendance and graduation rates as they move from base to base and state to state.

A recent study by the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute captured the importance of these data and why it must be shared.

Advocates for the identifier, the researchers wrote, felt that “without better data, decisions about military-connected students, and the programs, staff and funds that support them, are in danger of underserving [the students’] needs by operating on intuition alone.”

The new identifier will allow states and school districts to analyze student performance and address student needs with plans of action. And it will give military parents the opportunity to know which school districts provide the best educational opportunities for their children.

This is a great opportunity that educators, policy makers and parents of military-connected students need to embrace.

The challenge is what states will choose to do with the information they receive from the identifier.

Right now, the biggest hurdles in understanding the achievement of military-connected students are their high mobility and frequency of moves. States, along with school districts, must be able to consistently and accurately monitor the progress of these students.

To accomplish this, two things must happen.

First, state boards of education must adopt policies that allow local school districts to share these data while protecting students’ privacy. In some cases, this can be done through new regulations. In other cases, a change in law is needed.

Even with the right policies or laws in place, this will be a challenge because not every school district has staff who are trained in collecting and managing data.

Second, state boards must pass requirements ensuring that local school boards have staff who are prepared to ask the right questions of parents when they move into their school district, and then they must put the data in usable form that allows it to be shared. This may sound like a minor point, but is critical to the success of the program.

To ensure the children of our men and women of the armed forces have the best education possible, we must give the people who can make the military student identifier a reality the tools necessary to succeed.

It’s the best we can do to make life easier and richer for the new kids in school.

Christi Ham is chairwoman of Military Family for High Standards.

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