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Writing skills will be emphasized in new NCO Professional Military Education

Complete #TRADOCtown hall coverage

NCO Journal

The topic that prompted the most discussion — and the most anxiety — at last month’s State of NCO Development Town Hall 2 wasn’t even directly on the agenda. What had Soldiers most worried was the NCO Professional Military Education’s new emphasis on writing.

During the second segment of the town hall, representatives from the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy — Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Defreese, commandant; Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins, deputy commandant; and Charles Guyette, director of the Directorate of Training — described the new Master Leader Course and its writing requirements. They also explained how communication skills, specifically written communication skills, would become integral to every level of PME.

In speaking about the need and structure of the MLC, Defreese said, “The other part of the Master Leader Course is that every student who got to the Sergeants Major Course would say the same thing in the initial critiques: ‘We’ve never been taught how to write, and now we get here and we have to write university-style papers.’

“So we’re backing that down to the Master Leader Course,” he said, “and over the next year, all the way down to the Basic Leader Course. We’ll have a writing assessment, and we’ll force them to improve their writing skills or communication skills, both [orally] and in writing.”

That set the chat board buzzing, with commenters concerned about implementation, assessment and instruction.

Huggins responded to some of those concerns during USASMA’s session.

Sgt. 1st Class Alan McCoy, staff administrative assistant with A Company, 94th Combat Support Hospital, and Staff Sgt. Tonya O'Connell, mental health tech with 176th Medical Brigade, practice public affairs skills in Seagoville, Texas. All NCOs will be required to improve their writing skills under TRADOC's education plans. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Kai L. Jensen)
Sgt. 1st Class Alan McCoy, staff administrative assistant with A Company, 94th Combat Support Hospital, and Staff Sgt. Tonya O’Connell, mental health tech with 176th Medical Brigade, practice public affairs skills in Seagoville, Texas. All NCOs will be required to improve their writing skills under TRADOC’s education plans. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Kai L. Jensen)

“There’s a level of angst, obviously, in the Army right now on the redesigns of the educational system,” he said. “We are not throwing you into the shark tank. We are putting a lot of energy into the instructors and the training of the instructors so that they can help. … This is not a, ‘Hey, you can’t write, we’re booting you out of the Army.’ This is, ‘The Army is becoming more educated, it has to be able to communicate better, and this is how we’re getting after it.’ ”

And he assured Soldiers that they would be given the tools to succeed.

“It’s not show up and be prepared,” Huggins said. “We’re going to help you get there.”

Many of the students who reached the Sergeants Major Course have been concerned about their writing ability, Defreese noted. But he also said that as the course has dropped multiple choice exams in favor of more thorough written exams and coursework, the failure rate has fallen because students learn and retain the information better.

Guyette said, “The rigor of the course really drives the students to force themselves to improve their skill in an area they have not had before. It’s something they’re not comfortable with, but we have to take them out of their comfort zones, give them these [tools]. And the outcome we’ve experienced with this course is that they’re improving their writing and briefing capabilities.”

Training and Doctrine Command’s command sergeant major, David Davenport, who led the town hall, spent the second half-hour of the session on the online chat board that accompanied the webcast. When he came back to the set, he said, “There are a lot of great questions coming in on the chat board, and I noticed a common theme about them: It’s really about the writing assessments and the writing courses that we’re putting into our Professional Military Education.”

To help answer some of those questions, Davenport brought Institute for NCO Professional Development Director Aubrey Butts back onto the set to further explain the Army’s plans to improve Soldiers’ communication skills.

Butts explained that a writing assessment had already begun in most iterations of the Basic Leader Course, using software, called Criterion, that evaluates writing. Soldiers are given immediate feedback on writing assignments, scored 1 to 6. Butts said the Army is looking for a minimum score of 3, but that score doesn’t affect graduation.

“We’re not only doing the assessment,” Butts said. “Score 3 and below and we’ll offer a self-improvement course, which should be improved in the next couple months.”

Further assessments will be extended into the Advanced Leader Course, the Senior Leader Course, the Master Leader Course and the Sergeant Major Course, and each Soldier’s assessment will be tracked over time. Butts said this will allow for a “longitudinal study” of NCOs’ writing ability.

“Right now, if you look at the Army, only about 21 percent of the people who go to school can write effectively,” Butts said. “And it’s a problem with the new NCOER. If you look at it — it’s short. It’s concise. You have to be to the point. And if we don’t teach our NCOs to write, No. 1, we’re going to select the wrong noncommissioned officers for promotion. Secondly, with all the new technology that comes out, you have to text messages and receive messages, and if you can’t put it in a concise format, you aren’t going to be able to get all the support that you need on the modern-day battlefield.”

During the chat, INCOPD and USASMA representatives indicated that TRADOC was working with the Army Intelligence Center of Excellence in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to develop a complete writing program and curriculum that could be rolled out to all the Army’s centers of excellence.

Davenport noted that writing ability, as assessed during each level of PME, will be annotated on the new Department of the Army form 1059. That form should be out later this year, Davenport said on the chat, and TRADOC is working on writing assessment guidelines and standards.

Several commenters asked how instructors would be trained to improve Soldiers’ writing skills.

“The faculty development program gives instructors more exposure to English, grammar and comprehension and [will] norm the grading standards against a rubric,” Guyette said of the MLC instructors. “Internally, USASMA will have to monitor to make sure that they’re executing that.”

Defreese added, “It’s not just the Master Leader Course. We’re going to send instructors to help teach ALC and SLC instructors how to do that grading and norming of written tests as we put written requirements into ALC and SLC.”

A representative from INCOPD said on the chat that Army University and the Combined Arms Center are “reviewing how cohorts address writing skills in PME.”

“In addition, USASMA will look at ways to incorporate instructional techniques to foster writing skills as a part of the NCO PME continuum, …” the INCOPD representative continued. “We intend to ensure that facilitators of learning have the training and tools required to provide meaningful feedback on writing standards as a part of NCO PME. This issue is being looked at by the Army University and USASMA.”

In closing out the writing discussion, Master Sgt. Michael Lavigne, who moderated the town hall, said, “I can see that that’s going to cause some angst in the next couple years as this is introduced because there are a lot of people who are great doers but not very strong writers. But if it’s progressive and sequential, they can start out young and develop as they go.”

Davenport concurred.

“And that’s the vision,” he said. “Understand that it’s a gap that we have right now, and it’s a way to close that gap over time.”

Town hall discussions were wide-ranging, vital to NCOPD

Previously in The NCO Journal:

NCO Journal

OK, you missed it live. But it’s a week later, and you still haven’t found the time to watch the NCO Professional Development Town Hall? Allow The NCO Journal to give you a little inspiration.

The following are a few excerpts from the conversation to whet your appetite. You can hear much more on these topics, plus plenty of others, by watching the full town hall here.

Moderating the town hall was Master Sgt. Mike Lavigne of the 1st Infantry Division. Answering questions were Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, command sergeant major of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; Aubrey Butts, director of the Institute for NCO Professional Development; Sgt. Maj. Annette Weber, G1 and G4 sergeant major for TRADOC; Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk Conley, command sergeant major of the National Guard; and Command Sgt. Maj. Jim Wills, command sergeant major of the Army Reserve.

Select, Train, Educate, Promote

The first question of the night came via video, from Sgt. Joseph Wilson, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division: “With the new STEP program, a Soldier has a certain time frame to attend the corresponding NCO Education System upon promotion. For smaller career fields that offer the Advanced Leader Course a few times a year, this creates a backlog of highly qualified NCOs and hinders their progression. Is there any plan in the future to fix this?”

Davenport: “Sgt. Wilson, I think your question really gets at capacity. Do we have the capacity to train? We do. But when you go in and look at the allocation of school seats, especially as you indicated, in low-density MOSs, we have to make sure we are spreading those seats across the year so that Soldiers have the opportunity to attend those schools.”

Weber: “I think it also gets back to communication. Soldiers have to communicate with their branches, their leaders, and get their thoughts out there, so that we can get them into those schools that they need to go to.”

Conley: “Especially in the low-density MOSs, and especially in multiple-phase courses, it’s very challenging for our Soldiers who have a three-phase course. … One of the things my command sergeant major advisory council in the National Guard is looking at is, if a Soldier shows good faith and attends phase one of a course, we’re looking at adjusting the policy so that we could promote them upon completion of phase one, conditionally. If they’ve shown good faith — they’ve gone to school, they’ve met height and weight, they’ve met PT — we promote them pending completion of the follow-on courses. Then, if they don’t complete, that promotion would be taken away. But it starts the clock on time in service, time in grade, and if they’ve shown the effort to finish the first phase, I think we need to look at that.”

Wills: “We are going to have to work together and probably look at some of the challenges we’ve had in the past, we will need to look at the size of the classes … the student-to-instructor ratio, so that we can conduct more frequent classes and allow more opportunities, especially for the Guard and Reserve.”

Army University

This question came via Twitter: “Are Army University and its programs accredited, and by whom? And if not, when are these expected?”

Butts: “Right now, Army University isn’t accredited. However, we are going to use the joint transcript to record all Soldiers’ experience and education. We want the Soldier to be able to get a degree from the college they want a degree from.”

Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, command sergeant major of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, has makeup applied before sitting under the bright lights of the town hall studio March 3 at Fort Eustis, Virginia. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)
Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport, command sergeant major of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, has makeup applied before sitting under the bright lights of the town hall studio March 3 at Fort Eustis, Virginia. (Photos by Jonathan (Jay) Koester / NCO Journal)

Davenport: “If there is any cohort who benefits from the Army University concept, it’s the noncommissioned officer cohort. Because what Army University does for us is it takes our education and our experience in leading Soldiers and it puts it in terms that academia understands. It translates into college credits.”

Broadening assignments

This question came via the chat board: “How does the Army reconcile the fact that broadening assignments, such as drill sergeant and recruiter, have a little role in being selected for promotion during centralized selection boards?”

Weber: “The proponencies are updating their messages to the boards, so that information will get to the boards, because those jobs are very important jobs to the different CMFs (Career Management Fields).”

Lavigne: “It is safe to say it’s weighted differently, though?”

Davenport: “Of course, by CMF. Because they have a view of what they think makes a successful master sergeant or whatever grade we’re talking about, and the proponents write that guidance.”

Wills: “It’s important for the Army Reserve Soldiers to understand that once they go out to that broadening assignment, they need to go in, do their time and move on to another opportunity. We have a lot of folks who want to, kind of, homestead an opportunity. They don’t want to get out of it.”

Master Leader Course

This question came via the chat board: “How will the Master Leader Course be implemented? Is it residency, online or MTT (Mobile Training Team)?”

Butts: “It’s going to be in some form or another, all three. However, we’re trying to get it to residency or MTT.”

Davenport: “We’ve gone through a pilot at Fort Bliss, Texas. We did an iteration at Camp Williams, Utah; the National Guard hosted that. And next week at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Sgt. Wills will have the second pilot of the MLC. We’re getting a lot of positive comments back about the rigor. … It’s not the First Sergeant Course, if I can get that plug in there. This course is really designed to start making those senior noncommissioned officers aware of the transition from the tactical level of our Army to the operational, and giving them a glimpse into the strategic level.

A group of NCOs and policy experts quickly answer questions posed during the town hall.
A group of NCOs and policy experts quickly answer questions posed during the town hall.

“Dr. Butts is exactly right. We will do it brick and mortar. We’ll have the ability for MTT. And then we will do it by distance learning for the reasons we talked about earlier, for our Guard and Reserve, to make sure they’re not penalized. Because STEP applies to everybody. It’s not just staff sergeants and sergeants first class. If you want to become a master sergeant, our gap analysis said you have to be certified in those core competencies before you move forward.”

Structured Self-Development

This question came via video, from Sgt. 1st Class Caleb Barrieau: “With all the educational distance learning systems out there that our Soldiers are using to get their civilian degrees with, what is TRADOC doing to update or improve the SSD courses so that they are more interactive and valuable as a tool so that our Soldiers are completing their institutional training requirements?”

Davenport: “I hear a lot about SSD, and the comments are that it’s not to standard, and I somewhat agree. So, what we’ve done is we’ve formed a working group down at the United States Sergeants Major Academy and have begun a review of SSD-1 all the way up to level six.

“I’ve heard from the force. They want some type of academic grade to come as a result of this rather than just a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ and they want it to count for something. We’re working on that. Another comment that has come from the force is that if a Soldier doesn’t understand, or just tries to check the block, lock them out. We’re working on that, as well.”

Drill sergeants

Amy Robinson of U.S. Army Public Affairs, left, and Liston Bailey, chief of the Learning Innovations and Initiatives Division of the Institute for NCO Professional Development, respond to NCOs’ questions on social media during the town hall screen.
Amy Robinson of U.S. Army Public Affairs, left, and Liston Bailey, chief of the Learning Innovations and Initiatives Division of the Institute for NCO Professional Development, respond to NCOs’ questions on social media during the town hall.

This question came via the chat board: “Do we plan to bring drill sergeants back into the AIT (Advanced Individual Training) environment?”

Davenport: “We are moving forward with putting drill sergeants back into the AIT training environment. It’s a recommendation. Of course, we have to see about funding, but we’re trying to do everything we can to make sure our Soldiers are successful when they transition to their first unit of assignment.”

The standard

This question came via the chat board: “What does equivalency mean in our NCOES? If it means the same standard for the active component and Reserve component, and the Reserve component has a hard time meeting the standard of the active component, should the standard be adjusted? Do we expect the same standard across all three components when it comes to NCOES?

Conley: “The standard is the standard. Period, end of discussion. There is no active component/Reserve component standard: It’s an Army standard. Our Soldiers don’t want any different standard than anybody else who’s going through any course, any training, any event.”


This question came via Twitter: “How are senior NCO boards affected by the new NCO Evaluation Report and rater profiles?”

Davenport: “I don’t know yet, because we haven’t experienced it. We don’t know how the board will interpret this. We will learn a lot during this next promotion board.”

Conley: “It has to be OK to get a ‘C.’ A ‘C’ is a passing grade. You want to get to the ‘B,’ and maybe your first year or the first time you’re evaluated as a staff sergeant, you’re not as good as somebody who has been doing it two or three years. Maybe you get a ‘C’ your first year, and you say, ‘OK, what do I need to do to get up here to a “B” and an “A” when it’s time for me to be considered for promotion.’ If you don’t get a true evaluation, you don’t know what to improve on.”

Weber: “I’m really excited about the new NCOER because I think it forces leaders to really sit down with Soldiers and counsel Soldiers. … It gives you that opportunity to sit down with your leader so that he or she can tell you what you are doing or not doing, and how to get to where they need to get.”

Shake-up in promotion, NCOPD policy a ‘STEP’ in right direction

NCO Journal

The path to promotion in the Army’s Noncommissioned Officer Corps has been reshaped as the Army has rolled out its initiative to systematically realign the structure of its “backbone.”

Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh recently signed Army Directive 2015-31, which affects Soldiers vying for promotion to the ranks of sergeant through sergeant first class.

The change in the system shifted the synchronization of the noncommissioned officer professional development system and promotion eligibility requirements as part of the Army’s Select, Train, Educate and Promote (STEP) program.

“Under STEP, NCOs will have to meet Army standards for the knowledge, skills and attributes for the grade they wish to hold, before they will be promoted,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey.

“For years, that wasn’t the case,” said the 15th sergeant major of the Army. “During the height of the deployment years, NCOs could advance with no additional primary military education.

“Under this realignment, we are reaffirming that America’s sons and daughters are being trained and mentored by men and women with quantifiable standards of knowledge, skills and attributes associated with the grade and position they hold,” he said.

Lessons learned

The change was prompted by the NCO 2020 survey, which was compiled from NCOs throughout the NCO Corps and validated during subsequent studies by the Center for Army Leadership Annual Survey of Army Leadership; and the Research and Development Corporation.

“We learned … that a more rigorous and effective system is needed for developing NCOs today — not based on a desire to separate from past traditions — but instead based on getting back to a focus on building a competent and professional NCO Corps,” said Sgt. Maj. James Thomson, the sergeant major for the Institute for Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

According to Thomson, four key roles and competencies of the NCO, both now and in the future, will be to lead by example; train from experience; enforce and maintain standards; and take care of Soldiers, their families and equipment.

“Until now,” Thomson said, “development of NCOs focused on leveraging their experiences in the operational realm and providing individuals with exposure to technical training in the institution.

“Now, following a long period of war and deployments, Soldiers can benefit greatly from a revitalized set of processes designed to shape their professional growth and optimized performance,” he said.


The change in the promotion system will have a ripple effect on how Soldiers are enrolled in NCOPD schools.

“Under the STEP career model,” Thomson said, “HRC will [send only] those selected for promotion to sergeant first class to attend SLC. So the scheduling is going to be, when the E7 list comes out, HRC is going to schedule all those [Soldiers] to go to school.

“Every month, when they get the new list from the E6 board,” he said, “those folks will be scheduled to go to school. We actually think that we’ll gain efficiencies in our school scheduling and attendance processes.”

Recently promoted Sgt. Felipe Zamora, a paratrooper assigned to the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, passes through the archway, symbolizing his induction in to the noncommissioned officer corps during an induction ceremony Aug. 27 on Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)
Recently promoted Sgt. Felipe Zamora, a paratrooper assigned to the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, passes through the archway, symbolizing his induction in to the noncommissioned officer corps during an induction ceremony Aug. 27 on Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)

There will be no new additions to school backlogs as of Jan. 1. because Soldiers will not be scheduled to attend school if they are not in a promotable status, Thomson said. However, there will be a backlog for Soldiers who have not attended schools that will be required for their rank.

“There are some staff sergeants today who have not been to ALC,” Thomson said. “After [Jan. 1], they will be in what we call the ‘legacy backlog.’

“We are going to give every one of those [Soldiers] in that legacy backlog one opportunity to complete their [Professional Military Education],” he said. “If they don’t complete it, if they don’t take that opportunity, they will not have an opportunity to go again, nor will they be competitive for any future promotions.”

The realignment will serve as a potential promotion opportunity for Soldiers who are doing the things needed to qualify for promotion.

“As Soldiers choose not to attend their requisite schooling or meet the prerequisite standards for PME success like [the Army Physical Fitness Test] and height/weight,” Dailey said, “they are self-selecting to be removed from the promotion lists. This will allow those who are committed to the Army profession a chance to demonstrate initiative, and they will be the ones to get promoted.”

The STEP program is one of several ways the Army plans to improve its NCO Corps.

“There is more work to be done,” Dailey said, “including adding levels of PME and adding rigor to the course work in those classes, which also can lead to ultimately more college credits. With these and other advancements in the works, we are on a path to maintain the undisputed title of ‘The Most Highly Educated Enlisted Force in the World.’”

New requirements

Beginning Jan. 1, Soldiers competing for the rank of sergeant must be graduates of the Basic Leader Course and individuals competing for the rank of staff sergeant must be a graduates of the Advanced Leader Course in addition to meeting or exceeding the promotion point cut-off score, which is published monthly. Those who meet point requirements but have not completed school requisites will not be promoted, but will retain their promotable status.

Staff sergeants who are selected for promotion by the fiscal year 2016 Regular Army or Reserve sergeant first class selection board will be required to have completed Senior Leader Course to be fully eligible for promotion, regardless of their sequence number. Soldiers who are eligible by sequence number but have not completed SLC will retain their sequence number, but will not be selected for promotion until they have completed the course.

The realignment will also affect National Guard Soldiers. Those Soldiers selected for higher-grade positions but who have not completed the NCOPD requirements will have 24 months to complete the level of NCOPD required for promotion pin-on or they will be removed from the position that fill.

“One key line of effort for the [NCOPD] is a focus on ensuring that NCOs have exposure to the right types of education and broadening experiences as a part of their career life-cycle,” Thomson said. “Systematic changes to the way the Army trains and develops NCOs are also necessary to achieve strategic goals and objectives the Army has in mind for its operating concept in the future.

“NCOs must become more knowledgeable regarding their role within unified land operations, joint force planning, and the tenets of operational art,” he said.

Additional reading

To read the full text of Army Directive 2015-31, click here.