In 1941, my grandfather was the State Civil Engineer for the north region of Mississippi. Tom was given a critical skill exemption from the draft but deeply felt the duty to serve his country. He chose to volunteer. He failed a medical exam because of partial hearing loss, but was so determined to serve his country that he tried an experimental treatment (shots, of all things) and was eventually given a commission in the Navy. My dad vividly remembers being six-years-old and sitting on his father, Tom’s, bed as he packed to go to Memphis. He charged my father: “You are the man of the house now. Your mother needs you,” and handed him his ties.
When Tom got to Memphis, however, the Navy medical staff gave him another physical. This one, he didn’t pass. I can only imagine the disappointment he must have carried his entire life — not being able to serve his country because of a circumstance he could not control.
This story in my family history has always struck me as tragic. It’s one of the many stories that explain why his generation is referred to as the Greatest. But in truth, what may be more tragic are the thousands of young men and women from this generation who want to serve but are denied, because they can’t read or do math. In a way, that too is a circumstance many of them cannot control. But make no mistake: the real tragedy here is the circumstance we CAN control, but for some reason choose not to.
The data is sobering: 30% of high school graduates fail the Armed Forces Qualification test. Why? Because they cannot pass the reading and math portions. Data from 2010 shows in Florida, where I live, 20.9% of the high school graduates that took the test were unable to pass it, and 33.7% of the African-American high school graduates couldn’t pass. In Mississippi, where I grew up, 37.8% of the high school graduates didn’t pass, and half of the African-Americans who took it failed.
These are kids with high-school diplomas! Not the ones who have dropped out, but the ones who actually met the requirements to graduate. And then they try to enlist in the armed forces only to find out their diplomas mean nothing. NOTHING.
My husband was a tanker for 8 years with the Marine Corps. When I shared these stats with him, he showed me the tanker manuals he had kept. The diagrams and technical language looked like ancient runes and hieroglyphics to me, and I am a strong reader. He told me driving a tank was an incredibly complex skill, and the math concepts he had to know ranged from geometry to calculating distance, to being able to azimuth (is that even a verb? And it sounds to me like something you would need to save Zelda – turns out it is using a compass.)
In 2010, the Ed Trust released this report which is where I got the data above. The introduction by Kati Haycock should be enough to call people to action. This portion, in particular, is the clarion call:
“This shatters the comfortable myth that academically underprepared students will find in the military a second-chance pathway to success. For too long, we educators have dismissed worries about the low academic achievement of ‘those students’ with the thought that ‘if they’re not prepared for college or a career, a stint in the service will do ‘em good.’”
She nails it. Too many educators already think poor kids can’t learn as well as rich kids. Unfortunately, they’ve come up with the “safety net” for the low-achievers, too. Turns out, it’s a safety net full of holes.
About the author
Mary Laura Bragg
Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at MaryLaura@excelined.org