Best Defense

When I hear PME types use the word ‘rigor,’ I gotta throw the bullshit flag

The military loves metrics.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on September 10, 2015.

By Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese & CAPT Anthony J. Ruoti, USN (ret)
Best Defense PME advisors

A new academic year has commenced at many Professional Military Education (PME) programs. Per the 2009 Congressional assessment, PME must: “continuously evolve in order to imbue service members with the intellectual agility to assume expanded roles and to perform new missions in an ever dynamic and increasingly complicated security environment.” The complexity of the responsibility should not be underestimated. Therefore, whether Staff and War Colleges are meeting the demands of this, PME’s central mandate, must be carefully assessed.

War College students — many with distant or non-existent backgrounds in PME subject matter, as well as limited writing skills, begin accelerated graduate-level programs crafted for the least disruption to operational careers. Military and civilian faculties with varying levels of educational backgrounds and experience teach a common curriculum. War College Presidents and their senior administrators regularly come under sometimes-intense pressure to demonstrate curricular “rigor” from higher military echelons and/or Congress. This demand for “rigor” drives a PME institution’s proverbial train.

The military loves metrics. An Army University PowerPoint slide says it “Takes Pride in Achievement of Measurable Goals.” How rigorous PME academic programs really are has, however, never really been demonstrated. Academic rigor is a scale and simply asserting that “my program is rigorous” without a benchmark from which to measure it is the equivalent of boasting about being the tallest building in Sioux Falls. If PME wants to claim rigor then, in at least some ways, it must measure itself against the civilian academic programs at schools it claims as peers, where counterpart civilian strategists are educated, schools like the Harvard Kennedy School, Fletcher, SAIS, and Yale.

Currently, accreditation by military and civilian academic bodies is offered as the primary evidence of PME institutional rigor. But accreditation merely acknowledges minimum standards have been met, not excellence. Ironically, few (or none) of the metrics typically offered as evidence of PME rigor actually relate to intellectual agility or critical thinking. In fact, at times those indicators inhibit the PME learning process.

PME Professor Nicholas Murray considered how PME metrics can be misused in a 2014 article in Joint Forces Quarterly, looking at the Army Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC).

…the Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) currently devotes roughly 250 school hours of study to mission command, directly or indirectly. This number comes from a total of about 700 hours of core and advanced instruction, going by the 2013–2014 academic year. That looks impressive on paper. However, only around 100 of the teaching hours truly involve critical thinking as it would be understood outside of PME.

Yet, says Murray, classroom hours are increasingly added to the staff school curriculum, leaving students increasingly less time to think and study

The worst enemy of “academic rigor” is activity for activity’s sake. Education requires time to read, time to absorb readings, time spent in follow-on discussions, and time contemplating different views. Analytic writing, something students are often uncomfortable with, requires uninterrupted blocks of time. Regrettably, too often senior PME administrators wring collective hands when they discover student schedules contain open afternoons or, even worse, a day free of mandatory obligations. This conundrum generates one of the great ironies, hypocrisies, of PME.

Student reading requirements are often used as a “rigor” metric. A great deal of reading assigned, the reasoning goes, must make a program rigorous. One department at the Naval War College regularly asked students how much nightly reading they realistically accomplish. The answer was consistently 80 pages. Yet under the maxim “more is better,” assignments exceeding a hundred pages a night are common — even a badge of honor. And, here is the hypocrisy, faculties have long chaffed at institutional and visiting senior leaders, many alumni, addressing the class with the adage “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it.” Clearly, rigorous reading assignments are largely a box check cataloged for the benefit of PME accreditors.

A PME graduate recently posted an image on Twitter, accompanied by his words that “it’s such a small thing, but an easy win in the professional category if you fix it,” seemingly indicating that he sees the simplification of PME curriculum as demeaning.

Difference between graduate school syllabi and instructions at the Command and General Staff College:

Grad school: You must purchase or borrow the following book: Murray and Millet, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.

Command and General Staff College: You must purchase or borrow the following book: Military Intervention in the Interwar Period (a teal blue book with an aircraft carrier on it).

Students recognize (and tell prospective students) that it is hard to get an “A” in PME, but even harder to get a “C.” Conversely, General David Petraeus, the top student at Leavenworth, experienced a humbling wake-up call at Princeton when he received a D on his first microeconomics exam, and a B on a seminar paper marked with the comment “simplistic.”

Although attendance at some resident PME schools is on a competitive basis, it is not academic competition. There are no academic admission requirements for War Colleges (nor should there be for the JPME qualifications they receive there.) Yet the graduation rates of those PME institutions offering graduate degrees are remarkably similar to those of highly selective, civilian graduate schools. PME students do not want to be taught with sock puppets and be “given” a degree akin to an “everybody tried” Little League trophy. They want to be awarded an earned Master’s Degree.

To aid in the quest for academic rigor, it was earlier suggested that Staff and War Colleges measure themselves against top-notch civilian schools. True, some avoid comparisons between PME and civilian institutions by claiming “PME is different” — and they are right. However, the question of where and/or when to craft rigor must start by asking civilian educators: “why are your college’s and universities’ programs so highly valued?” PME curricula are rightly differentiated from civilian institutions’ based on respective practitioner relevance. War Colleges do not prepare the next generation of scholars, academics or researchers. In that regard, they are more like professional schools, like Harvard Business School (HBS). Yes, HBS’ customer base greatly differs from that of the War Colleges’. In business, the more value organizations create, the more profitable they become. In the military, high value units increase operational effectiveness for warfighters, negotiators, and acquisitioners. Therefore, in national security, as in business, “value” always comes down to the competitive advantage PME educated officers and civilians deliver; not page counts chalked up in the guise of rigor.

In Competitive Advantage — Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance, Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter posits organizations create value and constantly look for opportunities to increase it. Porter introduces his concept of a value chain — a set of activities organizations pursue to create value for its customers. He consistently focuses on how organizational systems’ inputs change consumer demand and thus reveals competitive advantage through an increased in the value of a product and/or service.

Consideration of Porter should at least give pause when PME leadership asserts the “we’re different” reasoning for not comparing itself to civilian schools. Future military leaders must be prepared to measure risk while dealing with uncertainty. Therefore, PME courses of study must oblige students to demonstrate skill sets for creating competitive advantages over future national threats. Moreover, graduates must immediately provide value for operational and national security leaders – the War Colleges’ customers.

But PME metrics often equate “innovation” with rigor. These can range from “classrooms of the future” with gee-whiz equipment (often removed later in favor of basic white boards), to demands for (more) curricular “synergy,” (more) active learning exercises, (more) participation grading, (more, or less) student writing or briefing opportunities, (more) use of technology and (more) real-world guest speakers (who also fill the deadly white space on calendars). Activity under the canard of innovation may placate leadership, but as often as not it does not enhance “rigor.”

Contrary to what PME syllabi often say (by requirement) students do not emerge from class each day with new blocks of discrete knowledge, ready to be used like a training skill. They come away gradually able to better and more comprehensively make sense of an increasingly complex world. Part of that as well is a lexicon of terminology that, as they rise through the ranks to staff positions and strategic planning jobs, will be familiar to their civilian counterparts. Our military leaders can’t be left out of conversations because they don’t understand the vernacular, and it’s not learned like spelling in 4th grade.

Rigorous learning experiences have been defined as helping “students understand knowledge and concepts that are complex, ambiguous, or contentious, and they help students acquire skills that can be applied in a variety of career and civic contexts throughout their lives.” Rigorous learning experiences are generated by a curriculum that is relevant, cumulative, challenging and knowledge based. And, there are many sayings about the relationship between a teacher and the curriculum. “A good teacher will do excellent work with a bad curriculum or no curriculum.” “A good building and a good curriculum are useless without a good teacher.” “ A great teacher can inspire and mask a bad curriculum.” All, however indicate an important relationship between the teacher and the curriculum. Specifically, rarely is it heard that anyone’s life was changed or inspired by a really good curriculum, though frequently that is said about a teacher.

PME institutions regularly describe their faculties with such superlatives as “world class,” “top quality,” “highly qualified” and “superb.” Quality of faculty is one of the indicators used in the ranking of civilian academic schools and programs, indicating overlap between civilian and PME institutional parameters. Civilian graduate programs are annually ranked by such entities as U.S. News And World Report and Forbes. While the specific methodology varies somewhat accordingly to discipline and other considerations, a combination of expert opinions and peer assessments, and statistical indicators – qualitative and quantitative – on the students and faculty, are generally used.

If PME institutions really want to be rigorous, an assessment similar to those used to rank “peer” civilian institutions should be conducted. The assessment could and should be designed to account for PME “differences” but also allow for at least minimal comparisons of best practices common to civilian and PME institutions. It would include qualitative indicators as well as the largely quantitative indicators currently relied upon. The assessment would also be useful in providing a gap analysis regarding where and how to spend increasingly tight PME funding — also a creator of value.

All educational institutions use metrics. Rigor is a desirable goal. But focusing on wrong metrics while missing opportunities to maintain and grow value is meaningless or even worse, counterproductive. When a student who has the opportunity to attend Harvard, SAIS, Fletcher or Yale for a Master’s degree but chooses a War College instead because he or she believes it is the best academic program for his or her career needs, that will speak volumes about rigor-cum-value.

Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor and former Chair of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. CAPT Anthony J. Ruoti, USN (ret.) is the former Chair of the Joint Military Operations Department at the Naval War College. The views expressed here at those of the authors alone and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the Defense Department.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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