Editor’s note: Earlier this year, we announced an essay contest, organized in association with the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), focused on addressing the US military’s recruiting crisis. After receiving an unprecedented number of submissions, the essays were narrowed down to a small group of finalists, from which leaders at TRADOC selected the top three.

This essay, from Jake Steel and Chad Aldeman, was chosen as the contest’s second-place entry.

The US military is in the midst of a severe and ongoing recruitment crisis. Adequately addressing it will require a mixture of solutions. Among them, however, we make the case for better data linkages. Namely, we propose the Department of Defense work with state departments of education to better understand the current pipeline of recruits.

This solution would solve problems in both sectors. From the military side, the three largest US military branches are collectively projected to fall twenty-six thousand recruits short of their enlistment goals this year. Recruiting challenges are a persistent problem, with a high percentage of prime-age Americans being unfit for service due to academic or physical fitness gaps.

From the education side, policymakers have long talked about the importance of making sure the 3.7 million students who graduate high school each year are “college and career ready.” While serving our country in uniform should be part of this mix and viewed as a successful outcome for recent high school graduates, the lack of good data on who actually enlists and persists means that military service is getting sidelined in favor of more immediately measurable metrics.

There is, therefore, a strong case for the Department of Defense to create a standardized data sharing protocol that would allow it to share military service data with state education agencies. Although there are data challenges that would need to be worked out, we believe these are eminently manageable. And, once solved, they would allow state departments of education to give credit to high schools that successfully prepare students for military service.

The Problem

In K-12 education, policymakers have long talked about their desire to ensure that all high school graduates are ready for college and career success. The not-so-hidden secret, unfortunately, is that the college pathway is easier to define and measure. Are high school graduates enrolling in college, earning credits, and persisting? These are discrete, measurable things, and many states produce high school feedback reports that give K-12 school leaders information about how their students are doing in higher education. To supplement the state-level data, a national nonprofit called the National Student Clearinghouse has data on 99 percent of postsecondary students nationwide, and it allows any school district in the country to find out, for a nominal fee, how many of their students enroll and persist through higher education.

As a result, states have access to robust data on college outcomes. For example, many states gather data on the postsecondary success rate of each of their high schools. This rate is typically defined by the attainment of a list of measurable outcomes within two years of high school graduation: enrolling in postsecondary education, procuring a postsecondary certificate, or securing a postsecondary degree.

In contrast, there’s less agreement among K-12 policymakers nationally on what constitutes success on the career side. States are tracking a wide variety of career readiness metrics and indicators including proxy measures like completing a sequence of courses in career and technical fields or earning industry certifications. However, there is a gap between the sequence of courses or credentials a student might attain to prepare for a career and actually securing gainful employment. Some state leaders have attempted to put military service into this mix, but a lack of easily accessible, accurate information prevents them from doing so.

Recent developments show how the lack of good data is holding back the effort to include military service in state definitions of successful career pathways. Upon the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, states were required to submit to the federal government their plans for designing school accountability systems. At the high school level, those systems must include achievement in math and reading; graduation rates; and at least one other indicator of school quality that is valid, reliable, and comparable statewide.

In their formally approved accountability systems, ten states said they were planning to use military service as one of their indicators of student success. Unfortunately, those intentions ran into two main implementation challenges.

One, without a way to track the outcomes they really wanted to measure—actual enlistments—states had to fall back to using ASVAB scores (the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) as a proxy measure to gauge a student’s intent and capability to serve. States are also using the ASVAB scores in nonstandardized ways. In South Carolina students must earn a score of 31 or higher on the ASVAB to count as career ready, whereas Delaware set its threshold at 50. This lack of cross-state standardization is fine within the context of an individual state’s education sector, but the military branches do not apply one standard for recruits from Delaware and a different one for those who come from South Carolina.

Two, states that want to count military service have been forced to rely on self-reported data. While they would like to give credit to schools that prepare students for the military, without a systematic way to gather that data, these states have essentially put the burden of proof on individual schools and districts. North Dakota, for example, has a clear list of what a student must do for a school leader (usually a principal or counselor) to count the student as “military ready.” The student must score 31 or higher on the ASVAB, not have any suspensions or expulsions on his or her record, and successfully complete the state’s required physical education courses. Alabama only gives credit to students who actually enlist in the military. However, for a student to count as military ready, the district is responsible for gathering an enrollment letter on official letterhead from a military recruiter.

Similar data challenges have left other states scrambling to fill in the gaps. Two states that declared their intentions to measure military readiness for all schools as part of their ESSA plans have since fallen back to making it optional. New Mexico allows ASVAB test scores to count, but only as an optional, supplemental measure for nontraditional high schools. It’s also optional in Wyoming, which instructs districts that are interested in gathering their own data to “request a spreadsheet of their students’ AFQT [Armed Forces Qualification Test] scores by contacting an Education Services Specialist (ESS) at the Department of Defense” and provides phone numbers for districts to follow up independently.

That leaves four states—Montana, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont—which intended to use military readiness when they wrote their ESSA plans but have since backed away from that goal. Texas has the clearest statement of why. In its latest school accountability manual, it explains that “due to discrepancies between annual enlistment counts for Texas military enlistees aged 17-19 released by the United States Department of Defense and TSDS [Texas Student Data System] PEIMS [Public Education Information Management System] military enlistment data for 2017 and 2018 annual graduates, military enlistment data is excluded from accountability calculations until such data can be obtained directly from the United States Armed Forces.”

In other words, state departments of education have signaled their desire to count military enlistment as a successful outcome for high school students, but they’ve been unable to do so systematically. This isn’t merely a wonky data issue. School and district leaders are sensitive to how they are evaluated, and right now they are choosing to nudge or encourage students to follow other pathways because military service doesn’t count. Solving this problem depends on the Department of Defense setting up a mechanism to securely share data with state departments of education.

The Solution

To solve this problem, a group of thirty-one states and territories have signed on to a letter asking that the Department of Defense convene a working group tasked with defining the outcome measures, drafting a sample memorandum of understanding, and crafting data-sharing protocols. The end goal would be a sample MOU template allowing any state to partner with the department to gather enlistment and service data on the high school graduates in their state.

This process would solve the standardization and data collection problems outlined above. We suggest defining military success as actual enlistment in any branch of the military within two years of high school graduation and persistence for at least one year of service. Regardless of the specific measures chosen, this process would allow Department of Defense leaders to set one national standard. We anticipate states would quickly adopt those definitions and incorporate them into how they evaluate high school success.

States are a trusted partner in this work. They—with support from the federal government—have invested heavily in their longitudinal data systems over the last few decades. Those robust, secure data systems are capable of linking K-12 student data with information on other sectors including early childhood, postsecondary, and the workforce.

Allowing state education agencies to connect their data with military enlistment information would be a momentous development. It would open the door for states to consider the military as a successful post–high school outcome, which would lead a greater share of the 3.7 million students who graduate from high school each year to consider the military as a viable career option. Ultimately, solving this data sharing problem would strengthen our armed forces and improve our national security.

Jake Steel has worked on education policy at the state and federal level, including in the US Department of Education during the Trump Administration.

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on school accountability systems and served in the US Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Cpl. Lydia Gordon, US Marine Corps