Challenging education researchers to incorporate military- and veteran-connected children into their work, Dr. Jill Biden addressed members of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) last week and shared her own experiences as an educator and military parent.
The wife of Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Biden recounted stories of visiting military-connected schools over the past several years and seeing examples of schools that make small, but meaningful gestures to make children in military families feel supported.
“Imagine what a difference it would make if every university included military awareness in their curriculum,” she said. “All military-connected children would have teachers and principals, counselors and nurses in their schools who recognized and understood their experiences.”
The special event, entitled “Operation Educate the Educators: Recognizing and Supporting Military-Connected Students Through University-Based Research, Community Partnerships, and Teacher Education Programs” was held as part of this year’s AERA conference in Washington D.C. Dr. Ron Astor, who leads the Welcoming Practices project at USC, worked with the White House and the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC) to organize the session, which drew roughly 3,000 education researchers and professors.
The AERA session was held in advance of an April 13 half-day White House conference focusing on military children and families that the Building Capacity/Welcoming Practices team at USC organized in partnership MCEC and Joining Forces, Dr. Biden’s and First Lady Michele Obama’s campaign to increase support for military families.
Raising Awareness Among Teachers
In the community college classrooms in which she teachers, Dr. Biden told the AERA audience that she routinely asks if any of her students are military-connected or have served in the military.
“Teachers need to be aware of the kids in their classrooms who are military children,” she said. “They need to know what these kids are going through and what additional stresses they might be under.”
She highlighted signs of progress in drawing the education community’s attention to the challenges facing children from military families. One development is the creation of a military student category in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The new data element will allow educators, policymakers and the military to better understand how military children, who face frequent school transitions and parental deployments, are performing in school. The law applies to students whose parents are active duty members of the Armed Forces.
Dr. Biden also noted a new funding opportunity for research focusing on highly mobile students, including military-connected children. Systemic Approaches to Educating Highly Mobile Students is a special research topic for the Institute for Education Sciences for Fiscal Year 2017.
In a panel discussion following Dr. Biden’s comments, Dr. Astor noted that learning about practices that best support military children can benefit other populations of students who change schools frequently.
“Military kids are not the only ones moving around a lot,” he said. “We could learn so much from them to help others who are moving around.”
While MCEC estimates that there are roughly four million children whose parents have served in the military since 2001, Astor added when veterans’ children are added, the figure could be as high as seven to eight million.
Joining Dr. Astor on the panel were MCEC President Dr. Mary Keller and University of Virginia professor Dr. Catherine Bradshaw.
Dr. Keller shared her experience as an area superintendent for the Kileen Independent School District in Texas, which serves Fort Hood, and talked about wishing she had been able to say “wait a minute” and consult research on how certain policies and educational practices affect military students.
“That’s what you can bring to the story,” she told the audience. “You can bring ‘wait a minute.’”
Dr. Bradshaw said much of her work has focused on students’ need for a sense of connectedness to their schools and on the mental health issues related to parents’ military service and the “very serious adult issues” military-connected students face.
“As educators and researchers, we need to be much more aware of some of the risks as well as the protective factors that these youth are facing,” she said.
Representatives of over 100 universities that have signed on to Operation Educate the Educators were invited to attend the White House session. At both events the Building Capacity and Welcoming Practices consortium were featured and the four Building Capacity guidebooks were distributed for universities to consider as materials for their courses. Dr. Biden also highlighted the work.
“We saw firsthand in 2012 the incredible work you were doing at USC,” she told Dr. Astor. “We wouldn’t be here today without you.”
Dr. Biden added that she would like to invite more universities to adopt the guiding principles of Operation Educate the Educators, which were developed in cooperation with MCEC and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
The principles include fostering awareness of military-connected students among faculty members, encouraging research that includes military-connected children, and working in partnership with school districts to create environments that are more responsive to the needs of military-connected students and families.
“Everyone here today has stepped up to make a real difference, but going forward we must challenge ourselves to do even more,” Dr. Biden said. “I hope all of you will commit to including the military-child into your curriculum; that you will reach out to your colleagues at other teaching colleges and tell them about what you learned here, and ask them to make the same commitment that you have made.”