Online town hall to focus on NCO development

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 22, 2016) -- Soldiers don't need to read the NCO 2020 Strategy before participating in the June 23 TRADOC-sponsored town hall online, but it might help them better understand what the Army is doing to prepare the NCO Corps for the challenges of an uncertain future.

In March, Command Sgt. Maj. David S. Davenport, the top enlisted advisor for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, hosted an online forum to discuss issues related to the NCO 2020 strategy. The event went on for two hours and questions from Soldiers were all over the map, he said.

"I made the assumption that everybody had read the NCO 2020 Strategy," Davenport said. "But they really had not read it."

So for this next online town hall, which runs 5-6:30 p.m. eastern time, June 23, Davenport said the topic of conversation will be a bit narrower. It'll be limited to just the first of the three lines of effort spelled out in the NCO 2020 Strategy: "leader development."

"NCOs develop as leaders over time through deliberate progressive and sequential processes incorporating training, education, and experience across the three learning domains throughout the Soldier Lifecycle," reads the 13-page strategy -- which includes only seven pages of actual reading material.

Soldiers who want to brush up on the relatively short strategy document, which in many ways spells out how their Army career will progress, can read it here: http://www.tradoc.army.mil/FrontPageContent/Docs/NCO2020.pdf

The other two lines of effort in the NCO 2020 Strategy are "talent management" and "stewards of the profession."

In advance of the town hall, Davenport talked with reporters about the topics he looks forward to discussing with Soldiers.

First among those topics is the addition of two new NCO professional military education courses. There are now six such courses:

-- Basic Leader Course

-- Advanced Leader Course

-- Senior Leader Course

-- Master Leader Course (this is new)

-- Sergeant Major Course

-- Executive Leader Course (this is also new)

Davenport said a survey a while back revealed educational gaps in professional military education. The biggest gap was the time between the Senior Leader Course and the Sergeant Major Course.

"It could be ten years," he said. "And there was a promotion inside of there, from sergeant first class to master sergeant. And so in the gap analysis, we needed a way to close that gap between those two PMEs. We came up with the Master Leader Course."

The Executive Leader Course, also new, is for nominative sergeants major who will work for general officers, he said.

BIG STEP

Davenport said that last year there was a huge number of Soldiers, about 14,000, who hadn't actually gone to the professional military education schools that were required of them. The PME schools line up with enlisted promotions, and Soldiers were not attending. Operational tempo, due in part to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, contributed to some of that backlog. But that optempo has died down, and Davenport said that now the Army's implanted a new system -- which he's pretty proud of -- called STEP. That stands for Select-Train-Educate-Promote.

The STEP program virtually guarantees Soldiers will get the right schooling and education before their next promotion, because if they don't get it, they don't get the stripes. In addition to attending the correct PME that is associated with the next rank they want, under STEP, Soldiers must also take the corresponding structured self-development, or SSD. If they don't, then they won't get the promotion.

"What that means to our forces, is that Soldiers must attend PME and graduate the level commensurate with the standing list they are on," Davenport said. "If they want to be sergeants, they have to graduate the BLC."

Under STEP, the following promotions require these educational requirements be completed:

-- To go from SPC to SGT: you need SSD-1 and BLC

-- To go from SGT to SSG: you need SSD-2 and ALC

-- To go from SSG to SFC: you need SSD-3 and SLC

-- To go from SFC to MSG: you need SSD-4 and MLC

-- To go from MSG to SGM: you need the SGM Course

Today, due to STEP, Davenport said, that 14,000-Soldier PME backlog has been reduced.

"I'm proud to report because of STEP and communicating to the force why education is important for promotion and continued service, we have cut that down to a little over 8,000 in the backlog," Davenport said. "The word is getting out that education is important."

SELF-STRUCTURED DEVELOPMENT

Davenport said that the Army and TRADOC are also revising that pre-classroom SSD to "add rigor to them, reduce the amount of hours, and make sure the content is needed."

The SSDs, he said, will prepare Soldiers for what they'll see in the follow-on classroom instruction. And also, the SSDs will reach back to previous education. SSD-2, for instance, will reach back to BLC in order to "tie it all together, to reinforce, to build on your knowledge base as we move forward."

Inside classrooms, he said, things are also changing. It's not just the number of courses, but how the courses are taught and how the programs of instruction are constructed.

"We're running our POIs through Army University to make sure they have academic rigor that can help out Soldiers earn college credit by attending these courses," Davenport said. "These POIs will cause a change in the way we teach."

With the MLC course, he said, Soldiers who have taken the course are impressed with the depth and challenge the course presents, Davenport said.

"Soldiers are saying they enjoy the rigor of having to read more, having to talk more in conceptual knowledge rather than just memorizing answers," he said. "We're changing the POIs, we're changing the testing methods."

TRADOC is also upping the standard of how Solders perform in PME as well. It's not just going to be pass or fail.

"We have a form called the Academic Evaluation Report ... we're changing the content of what an instructor is going to tell us about the Soldiers," he said.

Within the Army Form 1059, PME instructors will record a Soldier's grade-point average during a PME course -- or how Soldiers perform on the material -- and also class standing, for instance. Instructors will also record performance on the Army Physical Fitness Test, height and weight, and will ensure Soldiers have completed the Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback, or MSAF 360 Self-Assessment, "so they are aware of any blind spots they can work on in their self-development domain," Davenport said.

THERE'S READING ... AND THEN THERE's WRITING

Another facet of a Soldier's 1059 coming out of PME will be a writing assessment score.

"At each level of their PME, they will take the writing assessment and we can tell if they are improving, not improving, or getting worse," Davenport said. "So when they come into the academic environment, we can tailor training to help them improve."

Davenport said there's been a writing pilot in the BLCs, and in Fiscal Year 2018, there will be a requirement to have a writing assessment prior to attending resident PME.

"They will have two distance-learning requirements," he said, prior to each in-class PME. That includes the SSD and a writing assessment prior to going into the classroom.

"They go to a website, it's a drop-down menu, they're given a subject to write about," Davenport said. "They bleed on the keys. Once they finish, they upload it, and in a matter of minutes it comes back with ... you need to work on your spelling, your grammar, sentence structure, the body, the flow. It prints out an after-action report on things you need to work on to improve."

He said Soldiers can take information and use tuition assistance to take civilian courses to improve their writing. Also, he said, TRADOC is working with the Military Intelligence Center of Excellence on distance-learning packages for writing that the center has developed for their officer and enlisted service members.

"We're seeing how we can apply that across the Army to improve writing of the NCO corps," Davenport said.

ONE ARMY SCHOOL SYSTEM

Soldiers have to go to school, and the Army is not going to let a lack of schools or classroom slots prevent any Soldier from getting the PME they need to get their new stripes.

"If we're going to require every Soldier to have PME completed before we promote them, then we have to make sure we have capacity to train them," Davenport said.

One Army School System is about making use of all schools available, across the total force -- Army Reserve, Army National Guard and Regular Army -- to ensure that classrooms meet standards and can be attended by Soldiers from any component to get the schooling they need.

TRADOC has to look at all schools and all courses, and make some changes to find the efficiencies needed to make sure everybody has a seat in a school when they need it.

"And so what we're doing is that we are tapping into every source that we can find to educate our Soldiers," he said. "There has been no loss of capacity. There will be some repurposing of facilities. But there is no removing of courses. We have moved them around."

He said they've finished adjudication of courses between Guard, Reserve and Regular Army schools, with decisions based on weighted criteria such as facilities, per diem, and proximity to airports, for instance. He said they also looked at populations of types of Soldiers and where they are concentrated most.

"I'm proud to say that we are already leveraging the Guard and Reserve training facilities to get at that education backlog -- the 8,000," he said. "We've already begun with HRC to schedule all three components at each other's schools that our One Army School System recognizes. And then over time what will happen is, is that we will have not only a facility identified as a One Army School System, but we will have all three components educated together and taught by all three components."

Davenport said he's found that Guard and Reserve schools are equal to Regular Army schools. "We have a fantastic quality assurance program that TRADOC is the lead for any school, regardless of component. There is a common standard out there."

He also said that all changes being made to NCO leader development have been worked with the Guard and Reserve leadership. STEP, for instance, applies to all Soldiers, he said. "All of this work is being done to improve our education system regardless of what component it may belong to."

DIRECT LINE TO SOLDIER'S BRAIN

Davenport says he's been in the Army since 1983, about 33 years ago. A lot has changed since then. One example, he said, is how Soldiers get information from the institutional Army.

Back then, when he was a private, Davenport said, "my squad leader lined us up by date of rank. So that made Davenport, the brand new private, the last Soldier in the last rank of the formation. I very rarely heard what the first sergeant put out. And I was dependent on my platoon sergeants and squad leaders, of course, for telling me or showing me what I should be doing."

He said he didn't think then that was the best way to get information into the heads of every Soldier.

"I've always made communications with Soldiers one of the foundations of my leadership style," he said. "I think it's important that leaders put things in context for Soldiers."

He said putting things in context helps Soldiers understand, and that leads to getting more effort out of Soldiers.

That's why, he said, he makes such extensive use of social media, online town halls, and opens the floor to questions from Soldiers. During the last town hall, he said, that meant over 1 million social media accounts were involved, an average of 300 Soldiers showed up in the chatrooms, and Soldiers in 18 different countries participated.

"It's a very effective way to communicate directly to a wide range of audiences," he said "And it's two-way. They can hear what I'm saying, and they can chew on it, think about it and respond back."

He said with the last town hall, "Soldiers really liked the candor, they really liked what they were hearing, but they wanted to ask more questions."

He said this time, they will open the chat board earlier to let more Soldiers ask more questions.

The social media hashtag for the event will be #tradoctownhall, and it's also a forum for questions.

Soldiers who want to participate in the town hall can point their web browsers to www.emc.army.mil/broadcast to watch.

If Soldiers want to read up on NCO 2020 in advance, they can also point their browser to http://www.tradoc.army.mil/FrontPageContent/Docs/NCO2020.pdf