Remarks of Dr. Jill Biden at the American Association of Education Researchers Annual Meeting
*AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY*
American Association of Education Researchers Annual Meeting
Good afternoon, everyone! Thank you, Jeannie, for that nice introduction, and thank you AERA for making time for me today to address your annual meeting. I’m honored to be here with so many esteemed colleagues.
Today, I want to talk to you about two of my passions: education and supporting our military families. My father was a signalman during World War II. Our son Beau served a year in Iraq. The Bidens — we are a military family. And, as a lifelong educator the way we reach out to military children in our classrooms is especially close to my heart.
In my experience, most military children you speak with will tell you they’re just like everyone else. But, as we all know, most military children face circumstances that other children do not. Military children encounter multiple moves across the country and around the world; deployments of a parent missing special and typical moments of childhood; and the re-integration period when families try to go back to normal; all while facing the visible or invisible wounds of war. And, unfortunately, some military children encounter a new title “Gold Star Child” — when their family pays the ultimate price of service: the death of a mom or dad while deployed.
Over the course of the last seven years I have traveled and met with military children and their parents and teachers all around the world — and one word — resilient — is always used to describe them. In fact, last week, I had the opportunity to visit a middle school at Fort Riley in Kansas. Fort Riley is an Army Base, home to the 1st Infantry Division, with a population of nearly 50,000: more than 18,000 active duty service members; almost 25,000 family members; and, over 3,000 retirees. At Fort Riley the deployment cycle is constant. Families are on their sixth and seventh. One spouse told me she had moved 26 times.
Today, there are more than 8,000 military children living on base. I visited Fort Riley Middle School — one of the six public schools on base. There, 98 percent of the student population is military-connected. I visited their classrooms. I saw how one thoughtful teacher was using the Google Cardboard box app to study Ancient Rome — while culling first person narratives from students whose families had served in Italy. She was embracing the unique experiences of these students to show them how special they were to have lived in more than one place. It was so creative! And thoughtful! And, what a smart and easy way to recognize these students and make them feel good about moving, which on average, most have done 6 to 9 times.
This school took other simple steps to involve deployed parents in their children’s education by skyping for parent conferences; daily texting between parents and teachers to keep up on a student’s progress; and, recognizing those parents with a school entryway photo display.
As you can see — these are easy steps to meet the needs of military children and their parents. Fort Riley is right down the street from Kansas State University where faculty has invested heavily in specifically educating their teachers to better serve the needs of military kids. At Kansas State University they have developed a class devoted entirely to the education of military-connected children.
From top to bottom, from General Grisby to the newest arriving private, Fort Riley is structured to support the wellbeing and readiness of its soldiers and their families. When soldiers know that their family is well cared for, they become better warriors. And, our country is better served and kept safe.
Fort Riley represents the best of us, in many ways. All military kids should be recognized, appreciated, and cared for this way. But, not all communities are like Fort Riley.
In 2010, I visited troops with my husband, Joe, at Camp Victory in Iraq for the Fourth of July holiday. It was there I accidentally met a general, and heard a story that changed me. My staff and I needed a walk after the long flight to Iraq. We were staying in one of Sadam Hussein’s former palaces that had been outfitted as a hotel of sorts for folks visiting the base. It was there that we ran into three generals. One of them asked for a photo and thanked us for coming, especially at a time when the wars seemed to be off the front pages and out of the nightly news.
We talked for a few minutes. I told him that First Lady Michelle Obama and I wanted to work on issues on behalf of military families. So, he left me with a story that I will never forget — a story about acknowledgement. At his 6-year-old daughter’s school Christmas pageant, one of her classmates suddenly burst into tears when the “Ave Maria” was played. As her teacher took her off stage and comforted her. She learned that this had been the song that had been played at her father’s funeral. He lost his life while serving in Iraq. Her teacher — and the school — were unaware that she was a military child. Even more so, a Gold Star Child.
The general and I parted ways but I couldn’t sleep that night. As a teacher — as a military mom — I was shocked. How could we be missing this? I knew that all teachers would want to understand that little girl's experience. And, it made me realize that teachers need to be aware of the kids in their classroom who are military children. They need to know what these kids are going through and what additional stresses they might be under.
The next morning, I called my team together and asked them to think through a strategy that would help us better recognize and care for military kids in their schools and classrooms. This is where Operation Educate the Educators was born.
In the United States today, there are over 4 million children of Active Duty, National Guard, Reserves and post-9/11 veterans. More than eighty percent of military children are educated in public schools. And, on average, these children move every two- years and attend six to nine different schools before graduating from high school. Frequent school changes mean you have to start over in a new community; adapt to a new culture or language; make new friends; and, try out again for the same sports team.
We know military parents do everything they can to make those transitions as smooth as possible, but it’s not easy. That’s why First Lady Michelle Obama and I launched Joining Forces in the first place — we wanted to support and honor all those who serve and sacrifice so much on our behalf. And, with the help of organizations like the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), Operation Educate the Educators is an effort to encourage teaching colleges to recognize military children in their curriculum. To date, more than 100 universities have signed up to train thousands of future teachers.
To keep building awareness for the importance of this teacher training, I’m convening original signatory schools from all across the country at the White House on Wednesday. We will discuss best practices and research; share examples of syllabi and course materials; and, we’ll encourage even more schools to adopt the Operation Educate the Educator’s guiding principles. This training, which builds awareness of the experiences of military children, is key to promoting their success in the classroom.
So, what can you and your universities do to help our military students? Today, even though there are over 2 million military- and veteran-connected students in our K-12 classrooms, these groups of children are mostly absent in the research agendas of educational researchers, educator training programs, and community partnerships with universities.
Imagine what a difference it would make if every university included military awareness in their curriculum. All military-connected children would have teachers and principals, counselors and nurses in their schools who recognized and understood their experience. We would have research-based knowledge about effective practices and policies that are most impactful to military kids in school environments.
Educational research and over a decade of experience tells us that schools are essential to providing for the unique needs of this very special population of America's children. There are great examples of public schools across the nation that serve veteran- and military-connected students well — as I saw at Fort Riley Middle School. These schools need to be studied and documented by researchers like all of you here today; they can serve as evidence based examples for the nation.
But, we are making strides. For example, in December, the President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes a vital provision to identify and track military dependent students. This data will allow you to study the unique strengths and special circumstances of military-connected students. In addition to Kansas State University, I’ve had the opportunity to visit George Mason, Old Dominion, and the University of Southern California, which have all been leading the way on research in the military family space. I encourage you to acquaint yourself with their work. MCEC serves as an informal repository for the best examples of research, partnerships, materials, and thought-leadership in this space.
This is all great work, but there’s more to be done. That’s why the U.S. Government’s Institute of Education Sciences has a call out for grant proposals on research regarding highly mobile students, which includes military-connected children.
Today, I’m asking each of you — as education professionals and researchers — to do more. Find ways to include military- and veteran-connected children as a diversity group in your research. Let’s build the knowledge base that allows us to have accurate information on these kids. AERA has prepared a link for you to sign up and get the most recent research examples and materials. It’s vitally important to shine a light on both schools and innovators that are working diligently to improve social, emotional and academic outcomes for military kids. And, encourage other schools to follow their lead.
Educators have always been at the forefront of our nation’s challenges — I urge you to continue that proud tradition.
I want to leave you with one more story. A little bit closer and more personal. When my son Beau deployed to Iraq — that was a very tough time for our entire family. What kept us going were the many people who found ways to support our family that year, through so many acts of kindness. At my grand-daughter Natalie’s school, her teacher hung a photo of Beau’s unit outside the door of her classroom. So, everyone who walked into the room would know that her daddy was away at war. Believe me. That photo of her dad on the wall meant the world to Natalie, and it meant the world to me and my husband Joe, too.
It’s small acts of kindness like that — that any teacher in America can do — that can make all the difference in the lives of military families. It only requires a bit more awareness and understanding. That's what this initiative is all about. It requires data and statistics to highlight the challenges faced by military kids in our schools. They’ve been through so much — these kids, their parents have had our backs by serving in these wars... serving our country. Let’s always have theirs backs, too.
Thank you for having me here today. God bless our troops and their families.