A decade ago, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future issued a prescient warning in its report, entitled What Matters Most:
“There has been no previous time in history when the success, indeed the survival, of nations and people has been tied so tightly to their ability to learn. Today’s society has little room for those who cannot read, write and compute proficiently; find and use resources; frame and solve problems; and continually learn new technologies, skills, and occupations. . . . In contrast to 20 years ago, individuals who do not succeed in school have little chance of finding a job or contributing to society—and societies that do not succeed at education have little chance of success in a global economy.”
Demographic trends indicate that the U.S. economy will rely increasingly upon Latinos and African Americans because together they, and especially the former, will comprise a steadily growing proportion of the adult workforce. By 2020, roughly 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States will be Latino and African American. Yet these economically indispensable population groups, along with low-income youngsters, consistently lag farthest behind academically.
As recently as 2005, roughly half of fourth and eighth grade black and Latino students performed Below Basic in reading and math according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Actually, the imperative of boosting achievement transcends ethnicity. White students far outnumber those from other ethnic groups and constitute over one-third of all youngsters scoring in the lowest quintile. Compounding these academic gaps, distressingly large numbers of Latino and African-American youngsters drop out of high school.
Given the enormous stakes for our society and economy, our communities, and the young people themselves, the nation’s educators and policymakers should focus with laser-like precision, intensity, and ingenuity on equipping these endangered young people for self-sufficiency and citizenship in the twenty-first century. The enormity, gravity, and stubbornness of this challenge demand out-of-the-box thinking and interventions that are implemented on a scale commensurate with the scope of the underachievement problem. Focusing obsessively on standards and tests, tweaking what already has not worked, or instituting modest reforms with all deliberate speed fail to serve society’s best interests because they fall far short of meeting the educational and developmental needs of youngsters who are struggling in school and in life.
The effusive comments featured earlier by parents of teenagers who joined the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program attest to the capacity of this quasi-military program, established in 1993, to turn around the lives of thousands of school dropouts. These disconnected young people, along with those who have lost interest in school even though technically they remain enrolled, represent a vast untapped reservoir of human capital that, if left uneducated and underdeveloped, will become an enormous drain on society for generations to come.
This working paper examines the approaches, wisdom, and experience generated by the ChalleNGe program as well as the vast storehouse of knowledge and research, models and systems possessed by the military services that are potentially applicable to educating and developing youngsters who are at greatest risk of academic failure, economic marginality, and outright poverty.
The modest purpose of this paper is to ascertain whether these approaches show sufficient promise that they might work for these young people, not whether there is solid proof that they actually do work, The evidence gathered during our reconnaissance, which runs the gamut from sketchy statistics and partial studies to anecdotes and journalistic observations, is not yet robust enough to qualify as conclusive proof.
Why focus on the military? The United States military enjoys a well-deserved reputation for its ability to reach, teach, and develop young people who are rudderless, and for setting the pace among American institutions in advancing minorities. Young people receive military-style education and training in an array of settings, most typically in a branch of the military. Various branches also partner with public schools to operate programs that emulate the military atmosphere and methods.
These military and quasi-military programs exhibit many attributes that appear to contribute to the young people’s success and therefore might be appropriate to incorporate in a new approach to educating youngsters who are performing way below par, disengaged from school, or dropping out. Patterning the education of civilian youngsters after the military does raise legitimate anxieties and worrisome issues. The key is to embrace and customize those attributes that strengthen the education and development of adolescents, while eschewing the characteristics and methods that do not belong in a civilian enterprise.
School districts may continue to adopt those attributes that help them educate youngsters who heretofore have been difficult to reach and teach. This ad hoc approach to taking promising practices to scale characterizes the way progress often occurs in schools these days.
The preferable scenario in my view is to devise a strategy for testing several ideas that emerge from this analysis and then taking them to scale if they produce compelling results. The five concepts worth piloting are: (1) fast-track immersion programs to help low achievers catch up quickly; (2) quasi-military public high schools that adhere to a standardized format across and within school districts; (3) quasi-military public boarding schools for youngsters who need sustained and near total insulation from destructive family or community influences; (4) residential programs for incarcerated juvenile off enders who earnestly want a second chance; and (5) purposeful and faithful introduction of these promising attributes into regular schools.
The feasibility and effectiveness of these quasi-military program concepts should be tested via demonstration projects that are subjected to rigorous evaluation. If any of these produce strongly positive results, then they should be taken to scale.
The most logical and straightforward way to do so is for governors to give the National Guard units in their states this assignment. To insulate this vitally important domestic role from any national defense obligations imposed by the President or the Pentagon, these new education initiatives undertaken by the National Guard in their respective states should be financed by state and local appropriations, possibly augmented by grants from federal domestic agencies, but definitely not through the U.S. Department of Defense.
Millions of adolescents are marginalized academically and destined for oblivion in the twenty-first century economy. They barely, if at all, will be able to uphold their obligations as citizens and providers. The U.S. military figured out how to nurture and unleash the potential of young people like these generations ago. By demilitarizing and deploying what the Pentagon knows about educating and developing aimless young people, these troubled and troublesome young Americans can be transformed into a valued social and economic asset to our nation.