‘Last Stop USA’: How the Army Is Trying to Fill in for a Broken Education System

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October 7, 2023
Army Future Soldier Preparatory Course Pilot Program, Fort Jackson, South Carolina

Nearly every student, sitting at desks in Army uniforms at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, had a similar story. The public schools they came from were crumbling: There were holes in the walls, books held together with duct tape, few computers, not enough teachers and failing air conditioning that made paying attention in class impossible in the sweltering heat.

Test scores, which were already falling before the pandemic, took a nosedive, and recent years have seen a blitz in teacher strikes over poor working conditions and being paid wages not far above the poverty level.

For the Army to fill its ranks with aggressive recruiting quotas, it needs applicants who can meet a baseline of academic standards meant to be measured by the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. A dwindling pool of young Americans can meet those enlistment requirements, forcing the Army to pick up the slack as it scrambles to get kids up to snuff.

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“I felt like everything I saw on the ASVAB wasn’t what I was taught in high school. Everything was really basic in school,” said Pvt. Alvarez Anastasia. “I had a hard time, and I felt school kind of set me up for failure.”

By many measures, the K-12 school system in the United States is broken. No monologue from “The West Wing” about how public schools should be palaces is going to fix what is quickly becoming a national security risk. National test scores have plummeted, and ACT scores also took a significant hit. In the class of 2022, only 42% of those tested hit the basic benchmarks for English, reading, math and science.

This last year, the Army made a bet it could help more young Americans clear academic hurdles to be eligible for service. More than 10,000 soldiers, like Anastasia, have attended the resulting Future Soldier Preparatory Course, which has a track for students to lose body fat to meet the Army standard and one to meet its academic standards on the ASVAB, with the Army investing far more heavily in the academic track.

In total, there are eight academic companies at Fort Jackson and only two for the fitness track. There is also a small academic track at Fort Moore, Georgia, previously known as Fort Benning.

Roughly 95% of soldiers graduate and are then allowed to attend basic training, whereas many of them would have previously been turned away and not allowed to enlist.

In some cases, these soldiers are bad test takers or speak English as a second language. Some basic tutoring, structure and immersion with the ASVAB is all they need. But instructors for the course explained that most of the deficits they’re seeing are tied to basics that should be taught at every school; some of the young recruits coming in didn’t understand basic multiplication, what a leap year is, or how many seasons are in a year.

The recruits get 90 days to retest and qualify for a job in the Army, but the majority graduate in the first three weeks. Nearly all of the 30 soldiers interviewed by Military.com felt their schools had failed them.

In contrast to the schools they grew up in, the classroom for the Future Soldier Preparatory Course is comfortable and well equipped, at least by Army standards. There are three civilian instructors who have backgrounds teaching in public schools and are generally paid more, teaching roughly 30 students at a time sitting four to a table. And of course, there is a drill sergeant who takes a back seat to most of the instruction and is less rowdy than they otherwise would be with young trainees, adding to a student/faculty ratio that would make most elite private schools jealous.

Students here are just trying to get to basic training, and until then, drill sergeants are just there to corral the soldiers and provide a baseline example of what soldiering is about.

Most of the soldiers come from poor, rural communities, many from the South — places with few promising job opportunities. Some dropped out after a quick stint in college as the price of higher education has skyrocketed. In one case, a gay recruit hoped the military could be the means to escape a judgmental family.

These are young adults from low-income or working-class families, the kind where parents work long hours and are not always able to help with homework, with tutoring sessions well out of financial reach.

“A lot of trainees come from the bottom,” said Erin Hollier, a civilian instructor for the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. “What they needed that they didn’t get from their schools and maybe not even their home is for someone to say, ‘Hey, I care about you.’ That’s what I think makes my classroom successful, because I genuinely like cheering for the underdog. … For these kids, this is last stop USA. It’s either this or ‘I can’t pay my bills.'”

When Military.com visited the classroom, the students were going over reading comprehension and basic algebra, critical skills tested on the ASVAB. Performance on the test, which is akin to standardized tests students take throughout grade school, dictates whether someone is eligible to enlist and what jobs they qualify for in the Army.

As alarm bells have been going off nationally in terms of sliding education performance, the Army has seen a drop in applicants able to meet even the lowest academic standards.

No longer a pilot program and now cemented into the Army’s portfolio, the prep courses are expected to be the status quo for getting applicants into the service. The prep courses were spurred by an ongoing recruiting slump that has badly impacted the Army but hasn’t spared the other services. A shrinking pool of young Americans eligible to serve is at the core of that issue. Pentagon officials estimate that only 23% of 17- to 24-year-olds could serve, primarily due to the obesity epidemic and inability to meet the academic enlistment standards.

“This is a pathway to service,” Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, the Army Training Center and Fort Jackson commander, told Military.com. “So instead of complaining about what we don’t have, I’m excited about what we’re going to do with the pool that wants to serve. The onus is on us to ready those that want to serve.”

Kids and young adults are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on education, with sweeping declines in math and reading abilities. Those issues have been slowly growing in severity the past decade, but school closures accelerated a decline in academic ability among teens.

That decline at America’s schools, where disparate funding levels have long created vastly different education outcomes demarcated by race, has had a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic students who make up an outsized component of the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. There, Black soldiers are nearly 34% of the class, compared to making up just 20% of the Army. Hispanic recruits are 24% of the class makeup, but are 17% of the Army’s ranks. Just over half of the Army is white, compared to only 32% of the Future Soldier Prep Course.

One soldier described having trouble learning and having two siblings with intellectual disabilities. He tried college, but it didn’t work out. The Army, as he sees it, is his last chance to be successful.

“I need to prove people wrong about myself because I had a lot of people doubting me ever since I was a kid,” the soldier said. “If I had a C, it wouldn’t be good enough. A lot of stuff … it’s hard to understand sometimes. It’s especially hard to focus.”

The military has periodically struggled to fill the ranks with soldiers who have achieved its desired education level, a concern that has popped up during most of the significant conflicts in the past century. While the Future Soldier Preparatory Course can graduate up to 12,000 trainees per year into basic training who otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible to join in most cases, it’s only a bandage on the issue.

During World War II, the military hit a similar problem, with roughly 750,000 men assessed as having rudimentary academic ability. At the time, an enlisted service member was expected to be at a 4th-grade level of educational proficiency.

Some 10% of those who failed to clear the basic academic hurdle in 1942 could still enlist if they were deemed otherwise “intelligent and trainable.” There was some concern at the time that draftees were pretending not to know how to read to avoid serving. The following year, that number was dropped to only 5% after illiterate soldiers began causing problems in the field. But meeting the massive quota to build the ranks during an all-consuming war proved too difficult at the time. The Army tried sending reading material to public schools to help prepare students for military entrance exams, but never got a significant enough buy-in from educators.

Instead, the Army created what was an early 1940s-era Future Soldier Preparatory Course for illiterate applicants who would be placed in a 15-student class for basic writing and reading comprehension. Throughout the war, 107,075 men attended the course, according to Army records from the time. Roughly 80% of those men finished the course within two weeks, passing the Minimum Literacy Test, proving they could read and write at a 4th-grade level, and were allowed to move onto basic training.

Those training efforts were considered successful at the time, supplying replacement troops to the front lines. But whether those replacements were more helpful or harmful to the fight has been questioned by some historians, and Army records show that those men quickly lost reading and writing abilities obtained in their pre-basic training course.

During the Vietnam War, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara created Project 100,000, a program to enlist men who failed academic entrance exams. Most of them were assigned to the Army, and many had disciplinary or performance issues. In some cases, they accidentally shot their fellow soldiers or themselves, and were more likely to be killed by booby traps and mines. They died at three times the rate of other Americans serving in the war.

The Army did briefly initiate a policy in June 2022 waiving requirements for a high school diploma or GED, though that idea was scrapped after only a week amid scorn from some members of the military community.

“The problem facing the Army today in contrast to the two World Wars is basically one of salvaging the failures of the school system rather than of educating the uneducated,” a 1979 Army report on recruiting efforts reads. “Success of any program developed by the Army will be made difficult by the fact that the trainee often enlisted to get away from a school environment with which he could not cope and is immediately placed back in a school situation.”

There is early success with the Future Soldier Preparatory Course. Soldiers can attend for a maximum of 90 days, but can move onto basic training after improving their scores and qualifying for a specific job in the service. Soldiers increase their scores by an average of 18 points after their first three weeks on a test with a maximum score of 99 and enter basic training. That score is a percentile and compared to recorded scores from other groups.

But it’s unclear whether those trainees and the classroom immersion is just helping them to take the test or if they are truly set up for a successful military career, which past research has suggested is strongly correlated with test scores. Army planners say long-term data needs to be collected, and that it could take three to five years to truly measure the success of the prep course.

“We might be getting people who are scoring better,” Beth Asch, an economist at Rand Corp. who studies military recruiting, told Military.com. “But are we getting people performing at the level we are requiring that have been associated with higher scores?”

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Once a Pilot, Army Program for Recruits Who Fall Short of Weight, Academic Standards Is Becoming Permanent

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