Education leader: Act locally to improve schools

By Lisa Daniel: American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON — Progress is being made at the national and state levels for broad improvements in the public education of military children, but parents still should be involved at the local level to affect change the most, the head of the Military Child Education Coalition said.

“With great relationships, positive connections, and enthusiasm for working in the local community, when parents are engaged and involved, then you’re sure the voice of the military child is heard,” Mary Keller said in an interview with American Forces Press Service today.

Keller, who holds a doctorate in education, detailed initiatives outlined by James H. Shelton III, an assistant deputy secretary at the Education Department, who spoke at the coalition’s 12th annual conference held July 23 in National Harbor, Md. Those initiatives include the department’s push for all states to adopt common standards in core subjects, and improving how states measure the education data of military children.

Shelton, who grew up with a Marine Corps father, said military children especially would benefit from common standards so they know what is expected from year-to-year, and so that all their credits are accepted when they move into new school districts. So far, 35 states have signed onto the Common Core Standards compact, he said.

Improving data collection and tracking also is important, Shelton said, because officials currently can track only the progress of military children at the district level, rather than by schools or individuals.

The coalition has endorsed both initiatives, Keller said, noting that more than 80 percent of military children attend public schools in the United States. The initiatives are part of the Education Department’s annual reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known as No Child Left Behind in the Bush administration), but also are included in the Common Core Standards compact, she said.

Defense Department Education Activity schools do a good job of tracking students, but this accounts for fewer than 8 percent of military children, mostly at the elementary level, Keller said. Under new tracking initiatives, states are being asked to include military as a data-point area on school questionnaires, she said, along with gender, age, race, special education, gifted, and other areas.

While the federal initiatives and state responses are encouraging, Keller said, the public education system has become increasingly complex with layers of approvals needed before change trickles down to students.

“Signing onto the compact is just the start,” she said. “We’ve crossed a huge hurdle. But a gazillion other things need to happen. People have to be a little patient on this.”

Meanwhile, Keller said, the best thing parents can do to improve their children’s education is to be active in their local schools. “It makes a difference going to school board meetings, it makes a difference to go to PTA meetings,” she said. “You don’t have to wait around for dramatic actions to make a difference at the local level.”

Like others who spoke at last week’s conference, Keller highlighted what may be the most-important factor for educating military children — and all children for that matter — is for parents to take an interest in their children’s schools and education. And that, she said, is an area where military children come out ahead.

Seeing their parents volunteer and developing an understanding for how goals are met through collaboration set the stage for future success, she added.

“We know that military children are from families who care deeply about education,” Keller said. The first predictor of a person’s future readiness for work or college, she noted, is having a parent communicate that vision.

“The military community, overall, is wildly ahead on those core values,” Keller said.