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Case Study #17: Making School Work for Military Kids

Lockheed Martin and other donors ace an AP test

In 2010, we were in Hawaii meeting with schools, and one general who was about to be deployed to Afghanistan said to us, “There is no greater thing that you could do for me than to get this program in the schools here so you can take care of my family. While I’m deployed, I need my kids to get the highest quality education. That’s what you can do for me.” It’s pretty compelling when it’s coming from someone who is about to be sent to war for nine months away from his family.
—Gregg Fleisher, National Math and Science Initiative

The general quoted above was talking about the Initiative for Military Families, a program that helps schools serving military families improve their students’ performance on science- and math-related AP exams. In 2010, its first year, the initiative increased the number of students enrolled in AP math and science classes by 57 percent in its four pilot schools; by 2012 the program had been expanded to 52 schools, with similar strong uptake from students. In schools that implement the program, the number of passing AP scores typically comes close to doubling in the first year. And gains among students traditionally underrepresented in science and math success—girls, Hispanics, African Americans—roughly track the overall results.

The Initiative for Military Families was launched with $900,000 of initial funding from the Lockheed Martin Corporation, and is run by the National Math and Science Initiative. NMSI is a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by leaders in business, education, and science to improve U.S. math and science schooling. NMSI has trained teachers, enriched curricula, recruited top college students to teach math and science, and raised Advanced Placement participation and scores in 462 schools locate in 18 states. The group has received institutional funding from Exxon Mobil Corporation, BAE Systems, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and many other donors.

The Initiative for Military Families didn’t rack up its initial successes as a completely novel program; it hit the ground running as a spin-off of NMSI’s existing effort aimed at non-military kids—its AP Training and Incentive Program, which is set up to increase the number of students who take and pass Advanced Placement tests in math, science, and English. Getting students to pass those exams is one of the best ways of increasing the flow of students into science, technology, engineering, or math majors in college—areas that are undersupplied in the U.S. economy.

NMSI helps schools prepare their students for the AP exams well before they step into their first high school class. It brings in curriculum specialists to help schools reach back as far as sixth grade and lines up a sequence of courses that can culminate in AP success. It conducts site visits to identify which teachers best fit the program, train teachers over the summer, mentor them throughout the school year, and provide cash incentives to teachers of $100 for every student who passes an AP exam.

“There is no greater thing you can do for me while I’m deployed than to take care of my family,” said a general.

In addition to having the benefit of well-prepped teachers, students in the program attend extra study sessions outside of class hours. And they are provided their own cash rewards of $100 if they succeed on the test. All NMSI schools must allow every interested student the opportunity to take an AP class. “Teachers have to think differently about who is an AP kid,” says Lynn Gibson of NMSI.

One of the mottos of the National Math and Science Initiative is: “We don’t reinvent wheels, we find the best ones—and roll.” Its AP program is based on a system developed in the Dallas Independent School District in the late 1990s. Before implementation, only 26 African-American students in that district earned a passing score on their AP exams; by 2012, over 1,100 did. NMSI’s AP offshoot is currently being implemented in 462 schools around the country, 52 of which fall under the Initiative for Military Families.

A Natural Fit

In 2009, the chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, Tom Luce, contacted Pete Geren, an old friend who was then Secretary of the Army, with an idea—he thought NMSI’s AP program would be beneficial for military families. Geren had already been addressing the educational needs of military families. He explains that “because of the itinerant nature of life in the Army, education is forever a problem for military families. Not only do they move all the time, but they move between schools with different education systems and different levels of quality.”

Geren had been working with state legislatures around the country on an interstate compact that made it easier for military students to transfer between schools in different states without being penalized for missing state-specific requirements; by the end of 2012, all but a few states had signed on. That, however, couldn’t eliminate variations in curriculum, and styles and quality of instruction, that sometimes trip up students from military families after they arrive from other locales. So Geren thought the extra boost toward AP success that the NMSI program would supply might be very helpful to the children of soldiers.

“When somebody moves from one base to the next and sees teachers with the same type of training, and classes with the same type of curriculum, it’s something that they can rely on for consistent offerings. It’s so sorely needed,” explains Gregg Fleisher of NMSI.

By bringing consistent, high-quality math, science, and English curricula for grades 6–12 to many of the school districts where military families congregate, the NMSI program eliminates big structural obstacles that children of servicemembers would otherwise face when the military reassigns their parents to a different state or country. Even students who don’t themselves follow an AP track benefit from schools voluntarily establishing subject curricula that are consistent from place to place. Students find educational continuity within a sometimes tumultuous lifestyle.

“It’s helpful for military children to participate in these programs in some ways more than other children we work with, because they have to move, and NMSI makes school continuity and quality one less thing for them to worry about,” says Gibson.

NMSI aims to eventually bring the program to 150 schools with heavy military populations. That’s roughly the entire collection of public schools serving big numbers of military children around the country. When Geren first heard about Luce’s expansion plan, he thought, “I admire your ambition but I just can’t imagine that could ever get done—every school district and every school would be a separate project.”

The expansion so far, though, has been rapid. In its first year, the Initiative for Military Families was piloted in four schools. In 2011, that increased to 29 schools in 10 states. In 2012, the program was in 52 schools spanning 15 states. In just three years, the organization was more than one-third of the way to its goal. To carry out this aggressive plan, NMSI enlisted the help of several partners and adjusted its program slightly to accommodate the unique circumstances of the military community.

Major funders like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman backed the program from the beginning. When the Department of Defense saw the initiative’s results, it also became a funder in the program’s second year. Schools must have at least 15 percent military dependents to quality for the DoD funding.

Though spending varies slightly by location, bringing the program to a typical school costs NMSI $450,000 over three years to train and compensate teachers and students. After that point it becomes self-sustaining. The cost comes to about $200 per year for each student touched by the program.

When Lockheed Martin provided the major gift that allowed the National Math and Science Initiative to bring this breakthrough to the children of servicemembers, it and its funding partners broke new ground. A regimen that had originally been designed for low-performing schools was transferred to schools where the issue was students who move every few years. And the model turned out to be even more effective in these schools with lots of military kids.

Philanthropists aspiring to help military families and veterans should work to minimize structural penalties and barriers created by military service. By virtue of their parents’ active-duty military service, military children have access to much less consistent education than their civilian peers. By taking action, Lockheed Martin and NMSI made life much less uncertain for these students. If they move any time after the sixth grade between public schools participating in the Initiative for Military Families, even across the country, military children can now expect to find approximately the same high-quality curriculum and instruction on roughly the same schedule. That is a gift for children and parents both, and it’s producing graduates much better prepared for work in a technical world.

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