Zooming Out, Part 3

Hi.  I just had lunch at the Fordham conference.  Let me ask you something. 

How many of you -- or your colleagues in high-poverty schools -- served in the military? 

If it's like Match (where I'm a board member and cheerleader), the number is: quite low.  We don't know much about the military directly, and given our political leanings, mostly what know we hear on NPR or read in the New York Times. 

Now I'm listening to Hugh Price.  He used to run the National Urban League.  His new book is Strugglers Into Strivers: What the Military Can Teach Us about How Young People Learn and Grow. 

Mr. Price has been studying the following question for many years: "What can be learned from the military about educating and developing young people who are struggling in school and in life?" 

He writes/says:

Why am I, as someone who never served in the military, interested in this issue? My curiosity dates back to when I was growing up here in Washington, D.C. I remember how some of my classmates in my middle school and high school, fellows we quaintly called knuckleheads and thugs, would drop out of school. A few years later, I'd encounter them. They had either enlisted in the Army or else been drafted. They were ramrod straight in their uniforms, full of purpose. I didn't know what had transformed them, but I knew something in that two-year period, in that experience in the military, had transformed them.

I've heard it said that the military invests more in understanding human development than any other institution on earth. The military arguably has the best track record in our society when it comes to training and advancing minorities.

In conjunction with the paper that we prepared for Brookings, we looked at basic training, JROTC and the JROTC academies, and public military schools. We also learned about a fascinating program that ran for a while in Mississippi called the Pre-Military Development Program. It was for young people trying to get into the Army who couldn't pass the qualifying test. So they enrolled in this intense program. In a matter of five or six weeks on average, they gained a grade and a half or two grades in reading and math. We also looked at the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program. This is a quasi-military residential youth corps for youngsters who have actually dropped out of school.

In the course of looking at these programs, we identified certain generic and common attributes across many of them. These include an emphasis on belonging, a strong focus on motivation and self-discipline, emphasis on academic preparation, close mentoring and monitoring of how youngsters are doing, accountability and consequences, demanding schedules, teamwork, valuing and believing in the young people, believing that they can succeed, structure and routine, frequent rewards and recognition, and of course, an emphasis on safe and secure environments.

Over the last couple of years I have been co-chairing a Commission on the Whole Child for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum and Development. The entire thrust of the commission is that for kids who are not functioning well in school, it isn't enough to focus strictly on academic preparation. These youngsters have a lot of issues and needs in their lives that have to be addressed as well if they're going to become successful students and successful adults.

Price calls for summer immersion quasi-military style programs, quasi-military high schools, and quasi-military residential programs for young people in jail. 

In our research, we didn't seek to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these programs work. That level of proof doesn’t exist yet.

Instead, we were looking for signs of significant promise. Based on the encouraging academic and developmental gains that we learned about, we decided that these programs offer that kind of potential for youngsters. In fact, instead of calling them the antidote for dropout factories, I prefer to think of these quasi-military programs as graduation factories.

It's an interesting idea.  I could imagine a charter pilot version of Price's idea, with the chance to become a full CMO if successful.  If you're thinking of starting your own charter, you might want to meet Price -- he's a thinker and my guess is he's quite interested in supporting social entrepreneurs who want to take his ideas and run with them. 

One challenge occurs to me.  Within the charter movement, I wonder if the headwinds are blowing against Price's vision. 

The darlings of the charter movement, schools like KIPP and so forth, are being (unfairly) attacked for having discipline policies deemed too strict.  Any quasi-military school would probably look at KIPP as hopelessly lax, but compared to many high-poverty schools where "anything goes," it's certainly true that KIPP is stricter. 

My sense is that a new trend, even in the last several months, is some top charters are reallocating spending to satisfy these critics.  They taking $ from extra-curriculars, school trips, books, advanced classes, art, sports, and just about any sort of item that could be perceived as discretionary -- and reallocating for more full-time staff to work with a small group of kids who struggle to adhere to the rules.  The same thing is happening with limited teacher time -- reallocation towards time-consuming discipline procedures and therefore away from other core topics like lesson prep, helping strugglers after school, showing up for the basketball game to cheer, and so forth. 

So an "openly quasi-military" charter might face challenges in getting approved in Northeastern states.  But elsewhere in the country, I could imagine community support at a very high level. 

Price is finishing up his remarks.  He strikes me as a modest guy with big ideas. I hope some social entrepreneur out there considers them.  He's describing some particularly challenging kids that most schools of choice, whether run by districts or charter, don't serve. 

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Checker Finn asks: Why aren't JROTC programs enough?  Or the public military academies? 

Price: JROTC is just extra-curricular, not a full-blown school.  And the military academies don't serve the kids I'm talking about, with the level of social and emotional issues.