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Top General: When It Comes to Education, 'Good Enough' Isn't Good Enough

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Aug. 2, 2002 – The Military Child Education Coalition's work is vitally important to service members, says Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki. But that work is equally important to military children who are both "blessed and cursed for being born into military families."

"Blessed because our lives are rich in experience and relationships, but cursed because our nomadic existence makes us outsiders just about wherever we live, even here at home," Shinseki told a dinner crowd here July 31 at the coalition's 4th annual conference.

MCEC, started in 1998, focuses on the academic and school-related needs of military-connected children. The nonprofit organization addresses transition and other educational challenges facing military children. It also serves as an incubator of innovative approaches, a conduit of promising practices and an information source for organizations, educators and parents.

Military children are saddled with the constant burden of having to find some way to fit in wherever they live, the general said. What MCEC has done and continues to do, he continued, enables the military to offer children a measure of stability and predictability that the armed forces ensure for all the children of America.

Military service is an honorable calling, but it's the children who give the nation its enduring qualities, he said.

"It's our children who give this country an opportunity to extend the greatness that our service has provided," Shinseki said. "They do it through their intellect, compassion, energy, courage, confidence and their basic goodness and belief in the uplifting quality of mankind. But they must learn that from us. And we must shape the environment of learning so they will grow up capable and responsible for leading this great nation.

"'Good enough' isn't good enough when it comes to education," Shinseki emphasized. "Military children are graced with broader horizons and a sense of tolerance for others, unique benefits by virtue of the fact that they've traveled and seen so much more of the world. They see other lifestyles and know that, though ours isn't perfect, it's certainly well ahead of whatever is in second place."

Military children nurture hopes and dreams and are eager to learn, he pointed out. "We make a long-term investment in the enduring strength of this nation when we give them the realistic chance of succeeding in this mobile society we've created for them. So we dedicate ourselves to excellence and make a commitment to leadership in the broadest sense."

Defending the nation is a dangerous business, both in wartime and peacetime, but military personnel are focused on what they're doing and have accepted the dangers, the general pointed out.

"But you don't focus very well if you're worried that moving halfway around the world will disrupt your high school senior's academic year just when she's trying to arrange acceptance into her college of choice," Shinseki said. "Or when you've learned you're having to move your family in three months without any idea of what to expect in the school system that awaits your child.

"There are countless other examples where the demands for the profession and the demands of good parenting collide," he said. "So we have to help. 'Well-being' allows soldiers to focus on missions, training or operational, because we've put into place a system that looks after our families. That looks at the human dimension to readiness. Their sense of well-being has a lot to do with their sense of readiness. And the educational initiatives that we're all about are key to our soldiers' and their families' sense of well-being."

He said people today can see the Army fully committed to them and their welfare -- up front, not as an afterthought. That commitment, he continued, was the underlying principle in 1997 when Army Chief of Staff Gen. and Mrs. Dennis J. Reimer began examining the education issues of military-connected children. Their 1999 partnership with MCEC launched the Secondary Education Transition Study, which culminated in a broad-based community effort among commanders, school boards, superintendents and field researchers.

"All of us have benefited from the work," Shinseki noted. "Its findings are relevant to every military child and every other child in this mobile society. The goodness of SETS reaches beyond our walls."

SETS was an in-depth, two-year study that resulted in recommendations to improve predictability for military-connected high school students during family moves. SETS led to a memorandum of agreement among nine school systems aimed at making life easier for transitioning military- connected students and their parents.

The program has experienced dramatic growth since the first nine signatories committed themselves in July 2001. "Today, there are more than 90 signatories and by this fall, hopefully, 100," Shinseki noted. "It's a worldwide endeavor, from Washington state to North Carolina, from Texas to New York, Italy, Turkey, Japan and Korea.

"You don't get that kind of response unless there is something tremendously right about what you're doing," the general said. "So we're building sustainable momentum for SETS, and in turn, at least for the Army, for well-being as well."

The Army conducted its second education summit in Washington in early July with participation by representatives from the Department of Education, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the other military services.

"These partnerships and collaborations are institutionalizing the SETS memorandum of agreement," Shinseki said. "After the summit, one superintendent said, 'I don't really care what the rest of you are going to do. I'm going back and move on this because it's good for the kids.'

"Another superintendent on the drive home to Pennsylvania decided that he was going to recommend to his board that they change entrance requirements for kindergarten and first-grade students from military families -- something we've been trying to do in that part of Pennsylvania for years," he said. "In two days, that superintendent got it done."

Shinseki said the services would know they're successful when a child's transition from one school to the next is marked by strong communications between losing and gaining administrators and teachers. And, he said, they'd know success when the nation's mobile children leave their old school with healthy regret, but look with great anticipation to their arrival at the next school.

Another measure of success would come when students know that the good work they did at their last school will be valued where they're going, he added.

"The kids won't care who got it all started. That won't be the point," Shinseki noted. "The only thing that will matter is that it needed to be done and we did it. It's not about the Army. Not just about the military. Not about anything else other than our children."

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