Evaluating Training and Experience for
Michele Spires currently serves as the director, Military Programs for the American Council on Education (ACE). She has more than 18 years of extensive experience in both military and adult education, including curriculum, course design, development and execution, incorporating facets of distance learning and “virtual” program service structures. She excels in strategic development, project planning and implementation, outreach initiatives, and policy creation.
She is an active leadership voice in the evaluation of post-secondary learning acquired through formal military/corporate training and military occupational experiences. This includes leading academic teams for site evaluation visits and evaluator recruitment and training. Spires is a frequent speaker at national, state and local conferences, addressing topics that range from the evaluation of educational experiences that occur outside of the traditional classroom, non-traditional academic transcripts, and transfer of academic credit for the mobile student.
Prior to her role with ACE, Spires served as the start-up executive director of an off-campus higher education technology center catering to adult students, with live, mediated, satellite and video-conferencing capabilities for more than 40 degree programs. In addition to the internal administration and management of the Center, she directed external community and corporate outreach, marketed existing programs, expanded curriculum offerings and built industry partnerships throughout the region. Spires hired and evaluated faculty in collaboration with the main campus deans and chairs. With this process, she also created and facilitated faculty training workshops. Spires taught courses in interdisciplinary studies, leveraging technology tools such as video conferencing and web content management systems.
She holds a B.A. in French (SUNY Plattsburgh) and an M.S. in educational leadership (Troy University). She has also completed post-graduate courses with a focus on adult education and curriculum (Nova Southeastern University). Spires is the proud spouse of a veteran who served 22 years in the United States Air Force.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about ACE’s history of supporting military students and the Military Evaluations contract?
A: The American Council on Education was created in 1918 as the Emergency Council on Education as soldiers returned from World War I and searched for jobs. Since 1945, ACE has evaluated military training and experiences to gauge their eligibility for college credit recommendations.
In 1974, Military Programs began the assessment of military occupational specialties. More than 2,200 higher education institutions consider the Military Programs course credit recommendations; these credit recommendations can also assist in the servicemember’s career advancement. It is up to institutions to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to accept credit recommendations. ACE’s Military Programs is part of the Council’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation, whose mission includes helping more adult learners gain college degrees and credentials.
The Military Evaluations Program through ACE is conducted via a contract managed by the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support [DANTES]. DANTES is an echelon 3 Navy command, based in Pensacola, Fla., and provides education services, resources and products to all of the armed services, including the Coast Guard. For more information about the ACE program, the Joint Services Transcript or other programs managed by DANTES, please go to their website at www.dantes.doded.mil.
Q: How has your background and professional experience informed the approach you take to your role as the director of military programs for ACE’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation?
A: That’s a great question, because I feel like I bring a triangulated perspective. I’ve been an adult learner while we were stationed overseas, to complete my master’s degree. I have the experience of working as a campus administrator, working in higher education supporting adult learners from all elements of academic advising, admissions, enrollment, recruiting faculty, developing curriculum programs. And then [I have experience] also as a faculty member, in terms of teaching and digging into program curricula and developing academic courses.
Q: What does your position entail? What are your priorities this year?
A: I like to think of the director’s role as being the team captain. Delivering and executing on the contract and ensuring our compliance with the reviews, the evaluations, the workshops and reporting deliverables that are identified within the scope of the contract. But also, I am expanding to engage collaboration with our military services, the schoolhouses and the learning centers—and also trying to provide support to our academic institutions and to our adult learners, servicemembers and the veterans. In terms of priorities, this year has really been focused on supporting the transition to the Joint Services Transcript, with data integrity, with quality assurance checks, with communications and outreach to colleges and universities about the new transcript. Also, embracing and leveraging technology to streamline not only how we conduct our business and strategies with review and review processes, but also to continue outreach with more webinar technology and communications.
Q: How does ACE assist in evaluating how much and what kind of credit to award for military training and occupations?
A: I love to answer this question, because it’s the core, the essence of the work that we do. The course and occupation evaluations are conducted at the respective military installations. Prior to each visit, the ACE staff receives the appropriate material for new and revised courses offered by each service, as well as approved occupation manuals and descriptions. Basically, if we look at the process from an overarching view point, the ACE staff assesses the documentation to build an evaluation team, leads the review process, quality checks the outcomes, documents the findings and transmits a final report to the military school.
We at ACE facilitate the review process; we do not determine the credit recommendations. This is a rigorous, third-party, faculty-based peer review. College faculty who are currently teaching in those subject areas assess the content of the courses being reviewed. We lead academic teams into the field to actually touch, look at the instructor materials, student materials and assessments, and to dig into a consensus in terms of credit recommendations. We identify academic specialists to serve on the team—the faculty reviewers—based on the courses they are currently teaching, recommendations from postsecondary educational institutions, professional and educational associations, nationally recognized accrediting agencies, colleagues, and non-collegiate organizations. There is a formal selection process to identify the appropriate evaluators for the team.
Q: What criteria are evaluated for the course review and the occupation review processes?
A: Certainly there’s a difference in terms of evaluating the military courses versus the occupation reviews. The courses and occupations are distinct, and one of the elements we’re working with at the Department of Defense is to provide better information on the rigor of the review process, or as I like to say, “the behind the scenes.”
For the course review process, the assessment of learning outcomes is critical, since regional college and university accreditation bodies emphasize assessment of student learning. The team looks for the direct alignment of the learning objectives of the courses to ensure that the rigor of the assessment methods accurately and comprehensively measure individual student progress. The team is required to see evidence of the learning outcomes before making a credit recommendation, including tests, papers, projects and performance rubrics. Evaluators exercise professional judgment and consider only those competencies that can be equated with civilian postsecondary curricula.
Intensive courses offered by the military don’t necessarily require as much outside preparation. Evaluators consider the factors of pre- and post-course assignments, prior work-related experience, the concentrated nature of the learning experience, and the reinforcement of the course material gained in the subsequent work setting.
The occupation evaluation is an assessment of a servicemember’s assigned profession to determine what learning has occurred above and beyond formal military training. The process involves an extensive review of the official service materials and then an interview with the servicemembers currently working in the pay grade to validate the professional duty expectations. The occupation review process maintains a meticulous focus in determining whether job knowledge, skills and abilities learned are of post-secondary rigor.
Faculty evaluators consider factors such as how the “on-the-job” experiences have been learned; if occupation expectations are reflective of post-secondary level learning; the key components of the occupation’s responsibilities and how they relate to competencies found in post-secondary curriculum; and the core related competencies and learning outcomes within the occupation field.
Q: How are credit-level recommendations made once the evaluation has been conducted?
A: Credit-level recommendations are made in four basic levels: vocational certificate, lower-division, upper-division and graduate. Vocational certificate credits equate to course work normally offered in certificate or diploma [non-degree] programs that are usually a year or less in length and designed to provide students with occupational skills.
Lower-division describes course work normally taken during the first two years of a baccalaureate program and in programs leading to an associate degree. The courses stress development or analytical abilities at the introductory level. Upper-division describes courses taken during the last two years of a baccalaureate program that involve specialization of a theoretical or analytical nature beyond the introductory level. For both of these categories, a passing grade of 70 percent or higher is required in most cases. Finally, graduate-level credits correspond with content found in graduate programs. Such courses require one or more of the following: independent study, original research, critical analysis, and the scholarly and/or professional application of the specialized knowledge or discipline. A passing grade of 80 percent or higher is normally required. Acceptance of transfer credit is determined by the receiving institution.
Q: You mentioned the Joint Services Transcript [JST] earlier. Can you tell us how the JST works and its benefits?
A: We’re very excited to have a “purple” transcript! The Joint Services Transcript provides documented evidence to colleges and universities of the professional military education and training and occupation experiences of servicemembers and veterans.
The Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard have a synchronized transcript presenting personal servicemember data; military course completions with descriptions; military experience; college-level test scores; other learning experiences; a summary page with Service-members Opportunity Colleges transferability codes; and an academic institution courses page.
The benefits of JST include an increased return on investment, uniformity and centralization, and the alignment of service-specific information.
One other key component to note is that ACE supplies data that populates the JST and performs quality checks on the transcript, but ACE cannot make changes to this document; only the applicable service schools are allowed to update information.
Q: Has ACE recently promoted any other initiatives related to military education that you would like to tell us about?
A: What I’d like to do is send a shout-out to my colleagues in ACE’s Veterans’ Programs and their tremendous work with the online Toolkit for Veteran Friendly Institutions. They’re our sister division within ACE’s Center for Education Attainment and Innovation, and they created this wonderful online resource designed to help institutions of higher education build effective programs for veteran students. It’s a great portal in terms of being able to share best practices, and it goes beyond just the transfer and award of credit. There really are key components to veteran-specific orientations, student outreach efforts, faculty training, counseling, psychological services and beyond. I think that’s a wonderful resource that we want to share with the readership. The toolkit can be accessed at https://vetfriendlytoolkit.acenet.edu/about/Pages/default.aspx.
Q: What education programs or policies inspire you the most?
A: [I’m inspired by] those policies that really demonstrate empowerment and success to the servicemember and veteran in terms of their individual educational goals, policies that don’t pigeonhole them or push them into a direction they don’t want to go. I certainly bring a bias to this as a military spouse—it took my husband 22 years to complete his bachelor’s degree, which he did immediately after retirement. His success was driven on the high-touch support he received from his campus community, in terms of academic advising, support with veterans’ affairs, and getting him through those steps. I realize and embrace the fact that we live in a high-tech world. But leveraging the high-touch with high-tech is still a key component [in my opinion].
Q: What are you most proud of accomplishing over the course of your career?
A: I bring close to 20 years of working in higher education, and for me, my proud accomplishments align with the power of collaboration: bringing diverse stakeholders together to really delve into actual outputs with measurable deliverables, tangible accomplishments. Building communication infrastructures that are sustainable and creating replicable models so that if I step away, somebody else can jump into my shoes without any questions.
Q: Oftentimes, it’s challenging for servicemembers and veterans to understand credit transfer policies at individual schools. What should they know about credit transfer policies when choosing a new school to transfer to? What resources do you recommend they consult?
A: That’s a challenging question, because I’d like servicemembers and veterans to keep in mind that everybody has a unique background. I’d like them to take ownership in their own transfer process; they need to research and identify the institution that meets their needs as an individual and matches their learning style. There is homework in terms of learning and understanding their institution’s policies and procedures, and asking lots of questions early on in the process. We are currently updating our publication, “A Transfer Guide: Understanding Your Military Transcript and ACE Credit Recommendations.”
At the same time, DANTES has some tremendous resources and free tools to support a servicemember with self-assessment. DANTES Pulse [http://doddantespulse.blogspot.com] is a great blog spot with a rich repository of resources, articles and links. Servicemembers can work with education centers, and in terms of mapping out their education goals, there’s also Service-members Opportunity Colleges and the degree network system.
Q: How do your partnerships with the military services help you accomplish your mission?
A: Rather than speaking from the ACE level, I’d like to dig back into the military evaluations contract level, because again, we’re a contractor to the Department of Defense. So I think it’s really important to illuminate that the Military Evaluations contract that ACE runs is constantly in partnership with the various branches of the service and working closely with them on a day-to-day basis.
ACE does not select the courses and the occupations for the review. It’s the service program managers who are identified to support the contract deliverables that are working with each major education command to identify the courses and occupations. They’re a key strategic partner with the contract and to the success of the review process, which then funnels to supporting the servicemembers and veterans for their use of the academic credit—which then triangulates and brings us to the academic institutions who may be receiving and considering the academic credit recommendations for transcript. The dedication, commitment and leadership of the service program managers often go unnoticed, but not by the ACE staff. We honor and respect their support, especially because this role is oftentimes in the “and other duties as assigned” category.
Q: Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share with our readership?
A: The ACE Military Evaluations contract is a strategic partnership with so many stakeholders. I, as the team captain, as the director of military evaluations, am proud to lead a very strong, powerful team of colleagues who execute on the day to day. They’re working in the field, managing and dealing with the details. We also have our service program managers, our joint service transcript team, our military schoolhouses, and the colleges and universities. Without all of these partnerships, the team collaboration, and communication working with one another, we wouldn’t have success. Despite the obstacles, the challenges, the bottom line is the servicemember and veteran. ♦
- Issue: 8
- Volume: 8