A Moment with Dr. Moore

April 24, 2024

Making Teachers Classroom Ready: The Military Model

The military wants its child care system to be all it can be, a goal that recently led the Department of Defense (DOD) to host a child care summit. The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy convened the daylong summit to capture a broad range of views as DOD leaders look for new policies to assist service members and child care providers. Meeting their needs is mission critical, said Ashish S. Vazirani, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, as he kicked off the summit. “When we take care of our people, members of our total force can focus on their mission to defend the nation. Improving the quality of life of our people is our mission because our people are our greatest advantage.”

Providing service members with high-quality child care is essential to making them combat ready. And this goal has led the DOD to run one of the largest employer-sponsored child care programs in the U.S., serving more than 160,000 children each year. The program has also gained renown as a leader in child development, due to a system that rests on four pillars of success: certification by the military, itself; accreditation by nationally recognized agencies, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children; a hiring policy that sets educational requirements for child care staff; and a pay scale that not only cuts down on rapid turnover, but also rewards staff for gaining more training.

The high standards of DOD child care have made it a model for the civilian sector, but that wasn’t always the case. As late as the 1980s, the child care available to service members was hit or miss, with drop-off programs run by volunteer groups in clinics, stables, barracks and dining halls. Many of these settings didn’t meet fire, safety and health standards for child care centers. Staff turnover was high. Waiting lists were long, and parents couldn’t afford child care even if they could find it.

Meanwhile, demographic change led demand for child care to surge. Between 1973 and 1989, the share of enlisted women on active duty rose from barely 2 percent to almost 11 percent. So, by the late eighties, the DOD’s workforce, like that in the civilian sector, had come to include more women and more families with two working parents. The services were no longer made up of mainly single men but increasingly of career-minded men and women with children. Recruiting and retaining service members required raising the standards of child care.

Public awareness of the need to improve DOD child care grew in response to alarming news of alleged child neglect in some military settings. Then public concern spiked in 1989 when the Government Accountability Office reported that 24,700 children from military families in the continental U.S. alone were on waiting lists for center-based care, a staggering number that led Congress to hold hearings and lead the charge for change.

The passage of the Military Child Care Act (MCCA) in 1989 became the driver for improvement. It set comprehensive standards, required accreditation of centers, strictly enforced licensing and provided subsidies to expand access to child care. In short, the MCCA produced a broad system of high-quality, accountable and affordable child care that still stands as a national model.

The transformation of military child care from a distressed system to a standard for the civilian sector has been called a Cinderella story. And I was there when the story began. Between 1986 and 1990, I served as a personnel specialist on an Air Force base, and part of my job was to connect new service members with child care settings. I knew how important it was to them because there were two things that new people on the base often wanted to know. The first was where they would be living and the second was where they could find child care. While assisting families, I became keenly aware of the need for educators who could support children throughout the trials of military life, such as parents’ separation due to war and special assignments or frequent family moves.

It was important for DOD providers to keep up their skills, and Congress made sure the providers did by amending the MCCA in 1996. Ensuring teachers were classroom ready would ease parents’ minds and help them be combat ready. So, the amendment to the MCCA required all military child care centers to keep meeting accreditation standards through ongoing professional development and training. In addition, the amendment provided technical assistance for centers that struggled to meet the bar, leading to a 95 percent accreditation rate by the late 1990s.

In May 2020, this achievement led the National Women’s Law Center to release a report, “Be All that You Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System.” The report encouraged more public investment in child care by showing how the military took a sketchy patchwork of child care settings and turned it into a high-quality, coherent system—which only became better with updates to curriculum and training.

In 2016, the DOD implemented a new online platform with content for training its child care providers and directors. The platform replaced a paper-based training model that had been in place since 1990 and included updates that are still in force. Most importantly, the updated platform has 15 courses that align with the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™ and lead to 13 hours toward an associate degree in ECE.

The platform is an acknowledgement of how much the DOD values the Council’s hallmark credential in helping educators become classroom ready. And the Council has also made a positive impact on DOD providers for some years by offering our Military School-Age Credential for educators who work with young people from 5 to 18 years of age. MSA training helps the educators guide children through the ordeals of military life that I saw during my four years in the service.

As a veteran, I understand firsthand the challenges military families often face. So, I see the value of a new step the DOD took this year to assist families through the Intergovernmental Support Agreement. The IGSA is a partnership with Upwards, the nation’s largest child care network, and it allows U.S. Army Reserve families to access quality, no-cost child care during weekend drill and battle assembly trainings.

Having this support is a lifesaver to people like Kadine Thompson, a soldier in the Army Reserve. “It was like a big burden came off my shoulders,” Thompson said. “I was able to focus and just be at work for the first time.” The result is that Thompson feels he belongs in the Army long term and looks on it almost like family, he explains. “Of course, my kids come first, but if they’re taken care of, I will do everything that my company needs done.” The care his children now receive will allow Thompson to be all he can be.


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