This report from the Council for a Strong America provides an alarming snapshot of how ill-prepared many of the nation’s young adults are to be productive members of society.

The Council is an 8,500-member coalition comprised of law enforcement leaders, retired admirals and generals, business executives, pastors, and coaches and athletes. Its inaugural “Citizen-Readiness Index” gives more than three quarters of states a C or below on the index, due to staggering numbers of young people who are 1) unprepared for the workforce, 2) involved in crime, or 3) unqualified for the military.

Ohio received an overall C grade, earning some of the top marks for workforce and crime indicators. More specifically, 12 percent of Ohio’s young people ages 16–24 were reported to be unprepared for the workforce, a relatively low percentage nationally that earned Ohio a B. Ohio also earned a B on crime, with eight arrests per one hundred people (among those ages 17–24)—one of the lowest numbers nationwide. On military readiness, however, Ohio earned a D. A whopping 72 percent of youth ages 17–24 were ineligible for military service. Eligibility to enter the military depends on a range of factors, including physical fitness and attainment of a high school diploma.

Nationwide, almost a third of our young people (31 percent) are disqualified from serving in the military due to obesity alone. Factoring in drug abuse, crime (more than 25 percent of young adults have an arrest record), and “educational shortcomings” raises that number to 70 percent. (Unfortunately, the military readiness numbers aren’t broken out at the state level. We don’t, for example, know what percentage of Ohio youth are disqualified due to obesity versus other factors.)

These data are shocking and should remind everyone of the stakes at hand. Given the proven and widely known negative correlation between educational attainment and crime, drug use, unemployment, and other negative life events, it is all the more imperative that K–12 schools do a better job preparing young people not just for college but for life as upstanding, productive citizens.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t address K–12 public school quality, nor does it provide many concrete steps for state or local leaders—where education policy is truly set—to address the citizen-readiness crisis. Instead, it offers a set of recommendations geared specifically at Congress and the next president to address the problem.

Part 1, “strong families,” calls for Congress to reauthorize the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. Outlining research on the relationship between childhood trauma (affecting nearly a quarter of all children) and crime and drug use, the report makes a case—albeit a loose, indirect one—for reauthorizing the program, which serves 150,000 at-risk parents and kids.

Part 2, “quality early education,” dives into research on the long-term gains offered by high-quality preschool, but it misses the boat in its broad recommendation to reauthorize Head Start and expand the Preschool Development Grant Program. While making a strong moral case for investing in children, the Council overlooks research indicating that academic gains from preschool often wear off and that many current early education programs are woefully insufficient. (It does, however, acknowledge the uneven quality of Head Start.) Further, because it ignores questions about the quality of K–12 public schools, there’s no guarantee that suggested improvements to early learning will be sustained over time and ultimately reap the intended benefits (higher education attainment, lower crime, increased readiness for military, etc.).

Part 3, healthier schools, is perhaps the most relevant section, given the coalition behind this report (including military generals, coaches, and athletes), and the one that might be most practically addressed at the state level. Even if the other recommendations were implemented fully and school quality was improved dramatically, obesity would still disqualify a significant number of people from the military. Sixty percent of young adults are obese or overweight (according to standards set forth by the American Medical Association). These numbers are worrisome not only in light of military ineligibility but in terms of the life-long health consequences. The report recommends that Congress and the president “defend science-based nutrition standards” like those embedded in the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. Specifically, it calls on lawmakers to support the Child Nutrition Reauthorization introduced last year by the Senate Agriculture Committee. And it implores states to place a greater priority on physical education programs, which have waned in recent years. According to the report, the percentage of schools requiring students to take physical education has declined significantly in the last fifteen years, as has the amount of time spent on recess.

Despite not devoting energy or ink to discuss the academic quality of K–12 schools, the Citizen-Readiness Index does an excellent job of outlining the dire ill-preparedness of too many young people for jobs, college, or the military. The scope and commitment of the bipartisan coalition behind this report is impressive, even though its recommendations take on an equally broad, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. As Ohio develops its state accountability plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it might be worth including “citizen readiness” as a high school indicator.

SOURCE: Council for a Strong America, “2016 Citizen-Readiness Index” (September 2016).

Policy Priority:
Jamie is the former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She has authored hundreds of articles for the Ohio Education Gadfly, and has published op-eds in the Columbus Dispatch, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, Dayton Daily News, and Cincinnati Enquirer. She also works with a network of high-quality charter schools who are preparing low-income Ohio students for success in high…
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