Education and the Military Child

It’s the time of year when the barren branches of trees glisten with lights and the everyone seems just a smidgen more friendly toward one another. It’s also the time of year when many military families embark on an adventure filled with broken promises, crazy turns, and changed orders that is not-so-officially titled, “Where Will We Go Next?” While some such families will be able to share with their families during holiday gatherings what their new adventure will be, others may not find out until spring or even later. Yes – it can be an exciting time, but it can also be filled with anxiety as visions of sugar plum fairies in a variety of potential new locations dance in our heads.

We’re due for another move this upcoming summer. And no – we don’t know where yet. This move will have our son attending his fourth elementary school and our daughter attending her second, which are standard numbers among military children. We have a list of potential places we could go next (not that any of them are guaranteed) so I’ve been casually researching and anxiously awaiting to hear where we will spend our next two years. Now that our children are getting older, the impact of our frequent moves is greater than ever before. And now more than ever, we’re factoring the quality of schools into our research. I’ve spent most of my professional career working in the education field via one realm or another. I’ve taught preschool and college courses and everything in between. I’ve designed both in-person and online courses, I’ve created content, and I’ve collected and interpreted education data. And I have some thoughts on the education system as a whole and how military children are impacted by the status quo.

According to the Department of Defense, there are more than 2.7 million active-duty military family members who are well-versed in the outdated adage, “If Uncle Sam wanted you to have a family, he would’ve issued you one.” When I married my husband 15 years ago, I literally became a card-carrying member of an organization that is seemingly both celebrated (“Thank you for your service!”) and somewhat misunderstood (“You’re lucky you get free housing!”) by the general population. My husband is at the point in his career where retirement is within manageable reach, should he decide that 20 years of military service is more than enough for our family. I’ve often said that our decision to remain an active-duty family is based on a simple equation – if the perceived benefits outweigh the drawbacks, he’ll continue to serve. On paper – it appears to be a simple equation but like most things, the reality is much murkier.

One of the biggest drawbacks for many military families is the lack of educational consistency due to multiple moves throughout the adolescence of military children. Simple put – moving is hard and the way education is practiced in our country doesn’t seem to make it any easier for our children. While some families choose to homeschool their children in effort to maintain consistency despite moving every 2-3 years, they only represent 9.2% of military families who responded to the Military Family Advisory Network’s 2018 survey. This means that over 90% of military families surveyed have children who attend local schools (on-post, off-post, private, or DODEA).

Is education a military readiness issue?

Earlier this year, the idea that quality education for children is a military readiness issue raised a few eyebrows when the Commander of Air University, Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, stated he has difficulty recruiting faculty because they do not want to move their families away from high-performing schools in economically booming areas to the low-performing schools in Montgomery, Alabama (source). It’s not uncommon for families to choose to live apart from their service member in order for the military family to remain in a school district – whether it be for school performance reasons or secondary education reasons, such wishing not to impact GPA, class ranking, or IB vs. AP course load; all of which can affect college placement. And many families choose to leave the military earlier than otherwise planned for education reasons because maintaining two households for an undetermined amount of time is neither viable nor preferable.

What is being done about these inconsistencies?

Well – it is not a secret that education standards are inconsistent from state to state and highly nomadic populations, such as the military, suffer the most from such inconsistencies. Recently, the DoD, National Center for Interstate Compacts, and Council of State Governments developed an interstate compact in order to address the educational transition issues of military children called the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. In attempt to address the eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation issues encountered by military families, the compact “provides for a detailed governance structure at both the state and national levels with built-in enforcement and compliance mechanisms.” (source). Only time will determine the success of this coalition, but it is movement in the right direction – after all, the first step is admitting there is a problem. In the meantime, we will continue to do what we do best – research and hope we’re not doing our children a disservice.

What about school rankings?

When researching schools associated with possible places they could be sent next, many military families rely on word-of-mouth reviews and data-based websites like GreatSchools, SchoolDigger, and Niche. The websites differ in data sources and methodologies, which explains the varying systems of rating/ranking and they all have plenty of critics, who are quick to point out that it is impossible to judge the quality of education from a simple digestible number or letter. One study even theorizes that online school ratings accelerate housing segregation (source). Yes – nothing can replace the gut feeling received when touring a school and speaking with the administration, but those are luxuries many military families cannot afford, especially when moving 2000+ miles away and needing to secure housing as soon as possible. At the end of the day, it can feel like we’re rolling the dice with our children’s education – like most things military-related, many of us hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Is education a prize to be won?

I read an analogy once that really resonated with me – education in the United States is considered a prize to be won rather than a means for personal growth and professional fulfillment. Students are measured by predetermined benchmarks from Kindergarten onward and by the time they reach high school, they’re continuously ranked against each other as they compete for class placement in hopes of impressing college admissions representatives. Mental health professionals are calling the prevalence of anxiety among high school students an epidemic. While research and antidote evidence points to social media and the need to maintain a certain image as contributing factors, it’s not difficult to see how the increasing education pressures in middle school and high school also contribute to the epidemic. And when it comes to eligibility, enrollment, and placement issues that often arise when a high school-aged military child moves one state to another (or country), the anxiety is that much more heightened.

 “In a battle, it’s not the sharpness of the blade that matters but the skill of the fighter

There is a part of me that wonders if all this stress over class placement and GPA is worth it in the end. Over the years, economists have found that for most students, there isn’t a distinguishable salary boost between attending a super-selective college/university and a ‘regular’ college/university after adjusting for student characteristics (source). Simply put, the talent and ambitions of an individual student will determine success, not necessarily where they choose to pursue their post-secondary education. On the same page, an interesting Chicago Tribune article asked 10 CEOs whether they think where one goes to college really matters…spoiler – the majority said no, not really (source). Characteristics such as work ethic, people skills, confidence, and the desire to improve matter far more than the name of the school on the diploma. That’s not to say that students shouldn’t try their best and work toward an academic goal but perhaps the pressure placed on high-school students to achieve at all costs and compete against one another isn’t the best approach to post-secondary education.

My children are still at the age when going to school is not a chore – they’re excited to learn and be in the classroom environment. Both my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed school and still find ourselves engaging in academic pursuits today so it is extremely important for us to encourage their passion for learning and maintain their excitement for new experiences. Perhaps it is because we both went to ‘just’ a state school for college (Go Clemson Tigers!), but it really isn’t a goal of ours for our children to attend an elite college or university. If that is their goal down the road, we will support them but we will not push them into an ivy-covered brick wall. It is much more important to us that our children have a lifelong thirst for learning, an adventurous spirit, and not live in a world where they are making fear-based decisions and playing it safe. Perhaps that is why we don’t necessarily view them attending multiple schools as a bad thing.

“Adventure should be 80 percent ‘I think this is manageable,’ but it’s good to have that last 20 percent where you’re right outside your comfort zone. Still safe, but outside your comfort zone.” – Bear Grylls

While fewer children are staying in one school district for their entire education than 30 years ago, military children still move three times as frequently their civilian counterparts (source) This provides them with opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and experience other cultures and traditions – whether they be regionally within our own country or outside of our borders. In a study sponsored by Student & Youth Travel Association, the majority of teachers polled believe travel is a positive influence on education and enhances understanding of the curriculum (source). Yes – traveling to a new location is quite different than moving there but perhaps the benefits of being exposed to diverse cultures outweigh the drawbacks associated with switching schools. There are aspects to military life that can’t be ignored when it comes to the mental health of military children. Each child is unique and there is no ‘right’ answer when it comes to making education choices within the constraints of the military lifestyle. But that doesn’t mean military children can’t be celebrated for their resiliency and adaptability, both of which are admirable traits that are beneficial well into adulthood. That being said, there are undeniable obstacles military children face in regards to their education and it is up to each family to decide if those drawbacks outweigh the benefits of the military lifestyle.

Our upcoming move will not be our last. It’s tough to say what we will do when our oldest enters high school in five years. Maybe that will be the perfect time to put our nomadic lifestyle behind us or maybe we’ll decide as a family to continue calling various places home around the world. As of right now, they’re excited for the opportunity on the horizon and looking forward to the new adventure. There will probably be a few hiccups when they adjust to their new school and there is no doubt that we will miss their current school but with each move, we learn new things about ourselves individually and collectively as a family. We find life in the 20% outside of our comfort zone – it can be infuriating, exhilarating, and exhausting. I’d be lying if I said that our children’s education isn’t giving me pause about where we see ourselves in 5-10 years. But for now, we’re enjoying the ride. Bumps and all.

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