JOHN BARRY: Longer, smarter school days vital for national security

The good news is that there is a promising movement to make the school day both longer and better, emphasizing learning in basic academic subjects while preparing students for success in higher education and careers, including the military for those who choose that pat

As a retired U.S. Air Force Major General, I have some tough news for young Americans who want to join the military. Based on research from the U.S. Department of Defense, more than one in five of you could be educationally unqualified to serve.

If that surprises you, it could be due to the conventional wisdom that military service is a viable “fall-back option” for young people who aren’t cut out for college. While that may have been true decades ago, it is completely wrong now. Today’s military is a complex, high-tech enterprise that demands recruits with strong math, literacy and problem solving skills. In a typical year, 18 percent of aspiring recruits in Colorado are unable to score highly enough on the Armed Services’ Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which determines if applicants have the knowledge and skills to serve.

The good news is that there is a promising movement to make the school day both longer and better, emphasizing learning in basic academic subjects while preparing students for success in higher education and careers, including the military for those who choose that path.

Educators who embrace this approach recognize that the public education system’s typical six-hour school day and 180-day school year do not provide enough time for the curricular innovations that students need for today’s economy. This is particularly true for children from low-income families, who lack the resources for additional instruction and meaningful educational experiences outside of school.

152986_600Schools that are a part of the Generation Schools Network tackle this problem head-on with longer school days that connect classroom learning to life. Serving students across the economic spectrum, classes are smaller than in other public schools, and offer longer learning blocks in subjects such as English and math. Students also take “Studio Courses” each day, enabling them to explore their interests in arts and music, foreign languages, advanced sciences and technology. And they take “Intensive Courses” to prepare for a range of careers, including those in transportation, medicine, technology, hospitality and economics, all of which are made possible by an expanded 200-day school year.

Students also have the opportunity to earn two years of college credit for free prior to graduation, which is especially important because by 2020, 65 percent of the jobs in America will require some form of post-secondary education. Those who are qualified for careers that require college will likely have a solid chance of entering the military, which essentially competes with the private sector for recruits with well-developed communications and social skills who can quickly comprehend complex instructions, write clearly and master computer software.

As a member of Mission: Readiness, an organization of 500 retired admirals and generals committed to improving children’s health and educational achievement, I am particularly interested in the way these strategies are working here in Colorado at the West Generation Academy in Denver and VISTA Peak in Aurora. It could serve as a model for other schools during these tough economic times because it creates more and better learning time by reorganizing resources that schools already have, such as time, talent and technology.

As a result of that model, there is no increase in the number of hours that teachers work – the hours are simply allocated differently through a staggered schedule that allows ample teaching and planning time. The school also integrates curricula, linking American history to American literature creating a Humanities course, for example, and incorporating technology and engineering principles into science and math courses. And in contrast to other schools that offer college guidance as an add-on, Generation Schools integrate College and Career Intensive Classes at every grade, inspiring and preparing students for postsecondary achievement early on.

Collectively these experiences should make school more engaging while building core academic and critical thinking skills as well. As a result, I believe we will see more high school graduates with more options for a successful future, including careers in the military for those who choose that path.

John L. Barry retired as a two-star Major General from the U.S. Air Force in 2004 and served as the Superintendent of Aurora Public Schools from 2006 to 2013.

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