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Clear education objectives fit with military way

The state-initiated Common Core State Standards academic benchmarks have become contentious. I fail to see why this has been become such a thorn. Education reform may not seem like a national security issue, but it is one of the most pressing issues facing our nation. Either we compete educationally, and use Common Core to ensure a competitive future, or future generations will fall behind. As a former senior leader in our military, I know our children must compete. I’ve seen firsthand enough troubled spots in the world where education is not valued, not competitive. Never will that happen here.

In my personal experience in the Army, I had the opportunity to help young men and women grow into the finest leaders of arguably the most disciplined organization in the world, the U.S. military. What distinguished members of our military wasn’t an innate aptitude or talent; it was a penchant to learn, to train, to continually learn in an environment that valued education as the pathway to success and growth.

Unfortunately, today about one out of three individuals cannot pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the basic military entrance exam that ensures recruits have the rudimentary skills to serve. These are high school graduates with a desire to serve their country, but are denied that opportunity because our school systems have failed them.

The U.S. military is among the most sophisticated organizations in the world. As such, it requires individuals with strong reasoning and comprehension skills who will operate cutting-edge technology and equipment and lead fellow servicemembers. The building blocks to do that begin long before basic training; they are cultivated in classrooms throughout elementary school, middle school and high school.

For students of military families, who move frequently, that can be an especially tough path. A set of uniform education standards is critical to provide them with as much consistency as possible when transitioning from one school to another. Otherwise, too often they find themselves relearning material they have already mastered, or struggling to catch up to their peers.

In the military, our professionalism stands on a foundation of standards — known by all, recognized by all, embarked by all. We have well-defined objectives. Why shouldn’t we support the same clarity in our education system?

The Common Core standards clearly outline for educators, administrators and students what proficiencies a child should be able to demonstrate upon finishing each grade. These standards remove ambiguity. Administrators can resource; teachers can teach; students will learn — and grow.

Most of all, Common Core does not direct teachers or administrators what to do. Common Core establishes how their most precious resource, our children, will be evaluated in their educational growth. What teachers do is totally their call. Common Core simply sets the bar for excellence. It is not a curriculum. In military terms, Common Core is a mission statement; what teachers do to accomplish that mission is the collective decision of many parents, teachers, administrators and local school boards. That makes sense, because no top-down federal program could ever meet the needs of every school district.

It surprises me that the Common Core standards are drawing heat now. They were created three years ago, out in the open, with input from experts to teachers to concerned parents from 48 states. They are publicly available. Finally, they set a minimum, not a cap, on what students should know — meaning states can build on them even further.

Education reform is one of the biggest national security issues we face today. Of course, military preparedness is a key factor. But national security is much more than military might. It is the ability to educate our population of citizens, to prepare them for a life of contributions in the workforce, and to continue to encourage global creativity and innovation. That starts locally, in our neighborhood schools and classrooms.

We all want to see our children succeed. The Common Core standards normalize progression for students and set clear goalposts for them, and they put ultimate control in the hands of parents and local educators. That is a cause families of all backgrounds can stand behind.

Retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks is the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center.

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