What counts as “traditional” when traditions are changing?

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Nov 21, 2013

Every once in a while you come across a bold policy with a research base that is vague, problematic, or even obsolete. Here’s a prime example that I recently encountered: currently, the military requires students from virtual high schools and even some blended learning high schools to earn higher test scores for eligibility to enlist than students at schools that don’t deliver instruction online. Their reasoning? “Currently, the best single predictor of an individual’s likelihood of adapting to the military is a traditional high-school diploma.”

Search this exact sentence on the Internet, and hits on government and civilian sites will abound. The Department of Defense, GoArmy.com, and a plethora of others quote the statistic verbatim. But you’ll be much harder pressed to find a clear citation of what study drew this conclusion and on what basis. The notion of “adapting to the military” is often measured as a proxy for short-term retention rates to fulfill an enlistment contract during the first three to four years of service. This particular claim may draw on a series of studies comparing attrition rates of “traditional” diploma recipients, home-schooled high schoolers, and GED recipients. For example, one study, focusing on Air Force attrition rates using data from 1993 found different attrition rates in the first three years of enlistment: those with a GED were significantly more attrition prone (45.9 percent) than those with a high school diploma (32.5 percent); homeschooling data indicated an attrition rate of 38.5 percent.

So in a way, the military’s claim is correct. But however valid these studies were, the statistics enshrined in outdated studies stand to hold students from all “non-traditional” high schools as less qualified for military service. This assumption might explain the Department of Defense’s recruitment policy that requires students who attend blended and virtual schools to score higher on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) than students who attend “traditional” high schools. Students graduating from virtual schools must score 50 or higher, while graduates of traditional high schools are eligible to serve with a score as low as 31 to 36, depending on the service branch.

Congress clearly intended all students to be treated equally regardless of the type of high school they attended when it revised the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2012; the military has continued, however, to require different test scores for student populations from virtual schools. There is even some evidence that students from blended schools may also be held to this higher standard. Earlier this year, the House passed an NDAA bill that closed this loophole. This week as the Senate considers the FY2014 NDAA reauthorization (S. 1197), we expect to see an amendment proposed by Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to address this issue. It would ensure Congressional intent, prohibiting the DOD from requiring different levels of attainment on any test, assessment, or screening tool for any covered graduates under the law, and prohibit the Secretary of Defense from creating a different standard on any test, assessment or screening tool based on the type of high school a student attended.

There are numerous flaws to the Department of Defense’s current recruitment policy. First, there is a troubling lack of evidence to back up the conclusion that students who have completed virtual high school or supplemental online courses are less suited to adjusting to and succeeding in the military.

Second, this policy assumes that online learning is by definition not “traditional.” The rapid growth of online learning suggests that the military’s vision of “traditional” high school is reactionary at best, inaccurate at worst. State virtual schools operated in 26 states during the 2012-13 school year, serving 740,000 course enrollments. As of fall 2013, four states have online course graduation requirements in order for students to graduate from high school, and two more states have policies in development that are likely to be in place for students beginning in 2014. Moreover, we predict that by 2020 50% of high school courses will be online in some form or fashion. If anything, then, the current test-scoring regime is outdated in its sense of the traditional. In turn, this policy stands to limit the military’s access to a widening talent pool of students exposed to online learning.

Third, it’s worth noting the irony that the military’s own attitude toward new technology is anything but traditional. In fact, the military is a massive consumer of online courses for active duty soldiers pursuing course credits online using Military Tuition Assistance. Moreover, the military is increasingly using online-learning modules to train recruits. Finally, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), which educates over 80,000 children of military families, has itself created the Defense Virtual High School. The DoDEA explains this initiative “as part of our mission to provide exemplary educational programs that inspire and prepare students for success in a global environment.”

By treating graduates of virtual and blended learning programs differently, the military may be missing out on a growing number of students who are taking advantage of these online options. The Graham-Hatch amendment is an important opportunity for students and the military alike to embrace the new traditional.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.