A Memorial Day test: Are military children making the grade?

This post originally appeared on U.S. News and World Report’s Knowledge Bank blog

On Memorial Day, we take a collective step back in America to remember the brave men and women who died defending our country. As one who researches and writes about education policy, I’d like to take the past holiday as a chance to discuss how the most important people in the lives of our brave military fare in school. This topic hits close to home for me, as I have four brothers who have previously or are actively serving in the military who, with their spouses, have had to navigate schooling decisions for their kids – my nieces and nephew – in the context of all military life entails, including transfers to remote locales, temporary reassignments and deployments.

To begin, I’m pleased to report that by and large, military kids are doing pretty well overall. The best look at the achievement of military students we have is from the performance of the Department of Defense Education Activity on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly referred to as the nation’s report card. The Education Activity section operates schools on military bases at home and abroad, for the exclusive use of military children. Since 2002, these students have consistently outperformed the national average in all tested grades and subjects. In addition, high school graduation rates and college-going rates for these students surpass the national average.

Of course, these few facts should not imply that everything is rosy for military students. Military-connected children move between schools significantly more often than those in the civilian population, with estimates ranging from 6-9 times during their K-12 years; and moving at this frequency tends to come with unique stressors for school-age children ranging from a general lack of understanding from peers about military life to reduced student access to extracurricular activities to logistical problems with enrollment and student record transfer across state and district lines. And we have evidence linking these military transitions to lower test scores among children.

The deployment of a parent adds another, more acute layer of stress on top of this generally unstable upbringing. Parental deployment is associated with lower test scores among elementary and middle school students, and a range of social, emotional and behavioral problems, particularly among adolescents and pre-adolescents. And though one may be tempted to assume these consequences only last for the duration of the parental absence, empirical evidence suggests the effects last for a while, and have been detected up to four years after deployment.

It’s not clear exactly why military students are doing as well as they are, in spite of the unique challenges military life gives them. This counter-intuitive fact has caused some to speculate about the secret sauce in military communities – is it the military culture of discipline and hard work? The supportive community among those in combat where everyone watches each other’s back? Or perhaps high per-pupil spending in DOD Education Action schools and a culture focused on students and not test scores? We don’t have any strong evidence to really confirm or deny any of these possibilities, but it’s certainly worth exploring further.

But finally, it’s also important to point out that even with what evidence we do know about military-connected children, there’s far more that we don’t know. Much of the evidence discussed to this point comes from DOD Education Action schools, but less than 10 percent of military-connected children are actually taught in schools on bases. The lion’s share of the estimated over 1.1 million dependents in military families are educated off base, which for most means public schools near bases.

Though in public schools, we haven’t been able to systematically track how well military children are doing, but the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act includes language requiring education agencies to begin flagging students with a parent on active duty. Given this high dependence on public schools around the country, and the frequency of transfers across state and district lines, military advocates were jubilant at the inclusion of this language, and they hope that it sets the stage for school staff and leaders to start paying more attention to military students to help them succeed as best they can in school.

This Memorial Day, I thanked all of the men and women in uniform, and all of the teachers and leaders in the schools where military-connected children attend to help support them.