Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where Priorities Lead

Caption: Staff Sgt. Steven Atlas, a Chicago native, and a computer systems maintainer in Company C, 412th Aviation Support Battalion, works on his computer to check the status of the systems he must keep up and running.

You can't do this stuff without an education. This is an increasing concern to the nation's defense leaders.

Image credit: Sgt. Brandon Little/U.S. Army

An organization called Mission: Readiness formed recently to see what could be done to prepare the next generation of Americans for life in the military. This is a serious organization. Among others, it consists of Generals Hugh Shelton and John Shalikashivili, both former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), General Wesley Clark, former NATO commander and Presidential candidate, several former top enlisted men and women of each of the services, and a whole busload of other former generals, admirals, and civilian DoD appointees. They released a report on Thursday that came to a very distressing conclusion:

[M]any young Americans who want to join cannot. Startling statistics released by the Pentagon show that 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are currently unable to enlist in the United States military. Three of the most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to graduate high school, a criminal record, and physical fitness issues, including obesity.

Ready, Willing, And Unable To Serve (PDF)

The number of potential recruits who cannot join due to each of these three barriers is distressing, for different reasons. What all point to is that we have done a lousy job of preparing the next generations for life in the modern world.

Education and fitness disqualify roughly the same number of applicants. Adding up the numbers, roughly half of the 17 to 24 population either do not have a high school diploma, or cannot pass the basic test the military administers to test educational attainment:

Inadequate education: Approximately one out of four young Americans lacks a high school diploma. Students who have received a general equivalency degree (GED) can sometimes receive a waiver if they score well enough on the military’s entrance exam. However, most of those who dropped out and obtained a GED instead of a regular degree do not possess sufficient math or reading skills to qualify.
Even with a high school diploma, many potential recruits still fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test (the AFQT) and cannot join. The test is used by the military to determine math and reading skills. About 30 percent of potential recruits with a
high school degree take the test and fail it.

Ready, Willing, And Unable To Serve (PDF)

[emphasis from original]

While I can't claim to have taken the real test, I took this practice test in mathematics. I made things more difficult for myself by solving all the problems in my head. I still got 97 percent (58 out of 60) right. Then, I took this online practice exam for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), and got a 95.5% grade. Here's the screenshot of the result:
Image credit: Screenshot of 4Test.com result page by Cujo359

The ASVAB is considered part of the AFQT. It contains what I'd call questions about specialized knowledge in auto maintenance and electronics. If you don't know much about those subjects, you can't expect to do as well. Still, that I could do that well when I was in a rush should show that a satisfactory grade is possible for someone who does a little studying. I graduated from college thirty years ago. If the real tests are similarly challenging, it's sad that anyone who graduates from high school can't pass it.

What's more, as the Raleigh-Durham News And Observer reports, the military is willing to give recruits all the help it can:

If they exceed the Army's weight standards, recruits can come to the station and run or do other exercises with Army personnel. If they don't score at least 31 out of 100 in a practice version of the Army's standardized aptitude test, they can use an online tutoring program to sharpen their math, language and science skills before testing again.

The military can issue waivers for almost any disqualification, but as the economy drives more people to consider military careers, waivers are harder to get.

Pool Of Military Recruits Increasingly Unfit

For those who get those waivers, opportunities will be limited. For those who can't cut it academically, most technical specialties will be off limits. For those whose health is not up to snuff, a career in combat specialties will be a non-starter.

The more important consideration, though, is that this is also an indication that these young people haven't been prepared for life outside of the military, either. The military needs people who understand science and mathematics for the same reason everyone else does - this is a world that requires knowledge of both. People who can't operate or understand computers, or who can't communicate well with their peers, are of little use in the civilian world, except in a few areas of employment. Poor health can limit employment opportunities as well.

What's more, the failure to prepare children for school in the first place has had a serious impact on the number of potential recruits who are disqualified by the third barrier, a criminal record:

“[S]chool readiness skills” are more than just learning the ABC’s or knowing how to count. Young children also need to learn to share, wait their turn, follow directions, and build relationships. This is when children begin to develop a conscience – differentiating right from wrong – and when they start learning to stick with a task until it is completed. Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman studies economic productivity and argues that these early social skills are crucial for future success in school and later in life. As Heckman explains, success builds on success. Unfortunately, failure also begets failure.
Evidence supporting pre-kindergarten for at-risk children comes from a randomized-controlled study following children in the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Beginning in 1962, preschool teachers worked intensively with low-income children ages 3 and 4. The children attended preschool during the week and teachers came to their homes once a week to coach their parents on appropriate parenting skills. Researchers followed the children up to age 40, comparing their life experiences with the children who did not participate in the early education program. The contrast was stark.

Almost half of the preschool children were performing at grade level by the age of 14, compared with just 15 percent of the children in the control group; and 44 percent more of the children in the Perry program went on to graduate from high school.

By age 27, at-risk three- and four-year-olds left out of the Perry Preschool program were five times more likely to be chronic offenders than similar children who attended the program. Significant and meaningful differences in life outcomes continued through age 40.

Ready, Willing, And Unable To Serve (PDF)

Yet, congresspeople looking to score cheap points often label such programs "pork barrel" projects. Anyone who has paid any attention to the problem of educating children today realizes that often times the first few years of a child's life aren't spent in an environment that provides such experience. A little money would go a long way toward fixing these problems, but it appears our politicians would rather continue to support the prison industry.

The report's conclusions about the health of young people should be equally alarming:

Nearly a third (32 percent) of all young people have health problems – other than their weight – that will keep them from serving. Many are disqualified from serving for asthma, eyesight or hearing problems, mental health issues, or recent treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

When weight problems are added in with the other health problems, over half of young adults cannot join because of health issues. Additional young people are not eligible to join because of drug or alcohol problems.

Ready, Willing, And Unable To Serve (PDF)

As I mentioned before, these are conditions that can make recruits for a civilian job less attractive, also, and can potentially disqualify them from many areas of employment. Many of these conditions can be treated, and in some cases ameliorated, by proper health care. This is yet another tragic consequence of our current health care situation.

It's a sad irony that while trying to build up our military strength over the last three decades, our government has often neglected to take care of the people and the institutions that make a modern military possible. We have allowed much of our manufacturing base to be exported to the rest of the world. We've neglected public education, and we've neglected our own health. Yet we've never failed to build weapons systems, and create new, complex directorates for building and testing these systems. Our weapons have become marvels of mobility and automation, at the same time that our children have become unprepared to handle them.

As a nation we seem to have lost the notion that the real strength of a country is in its people, not its weaponry. Our priorities have created a sadly ironic predicament.

By now, I'm used to the idea that our leaders really don't give a damn about the people they rule. That's readily apparent from the spectacle of this health care debate. But some day, they are going to have to wake up and realize that the next grand adventure they want to send the Army on probably isn't going to be feasible, because the Army can't find enough qualified applicants to fight it. You'd think that, if for no other reason than to save their own pathetic asses or spare their own children from fighting our wars, they'd take better care of the next generations.

Apparently, they aren't even capable of that sort of concern.

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