Why Are Students at Military Base Schools Out-Achieving Their Civilian Peers?
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Poor conditions inside schools are not just a nuisance; they also present notable health hazards. High moisture and heat levels, common in many Pentagon-run schools, contribute to the growth of mold, which can cause respiratory problems, rashes and other health problems for students. Facilities with poor temperature control can increase the risk of illness, especially among students with immune systems weakened by travel, stress and other factors. Overcrowding is also a problem in many base schools.
At home, many military children deal with the stress of missing family members when one or both parents is out on deployment. A RAND study suggests that students with parents on lengthy deployments are more likely to experience a drop in test scores, and deployments can also be accompanied by emotional outbursts and difficulty focusing in school, phenomena witnessed by educators who work on military bases. This is disruptive not just for individual pupils, but for other members of their classes as well.
Given these conditions, how do we explain the possibility that students on military bases are outperforming their civilian peers? To start with, despite the many documented challenges they face, military children often benefit from experiential advantages unavailable to many of their civilian counterparts. They benefit from housing security in the form of base housing or a stipend designed to make local housing affordable. They also have access to routine healthcare services, which can radically increase their productivity as well as comfort; base students miss fewer days of school for health-related reasons as a result of preventative care and prompt treatment for illnesses, when compared to civilian children. Furthermore, they benefit from a large support network of military families and personnel, creating a community around pupils -- rather than forcing students and parents to navigate the system on their own.
Just as important, schools on military bases, when run well, focus on developing a culture of learning, instead of focusing on test scores. Performance-based evaluations are judged on detailed evaluations of students and teachers, not standardized test results. Accountability functions very differently in DoDEA facilities than it does in the civilian world, highlighting some key cultural differences between the military and the outside world.
A different school culture?
Take a look at how base schools are run and it’s hard not to be struck by the differences vis a vis how we operate schools in the civilian world. Because their funding originates with the Department of Defense, base schools are not subject to No Child Left Behind and its accompanying stringent and problematic requirements, which have been heavily criticized by educators. (Incidentally, DoDEA per-student funding averages are higher than those in the civilian world.) These schools also don’t participate in the Race to the Top, preferring to focus instead on creating a very different kind of educational and policy culture on campus.
Much like the military itself, base schools are highly organized and centralized. A clear chain of command establishes communication at every level of a school, and includes cooperation between teachers and administrators, who enjoy a relationship that tends to be less fraught than in the civilian world. The teachers’ union is a welcome participant in the educational landscape in many base schools, rather than being viewed as an adversary. (In one example, union representatives were made part of the planning for a school nutrition program, with the administration noting that teacher development and full participation in school initiatives was an important part of providing educational services.) As federal employees, DoDEA teachers and their unions work with management to resolve disputes effectively and maximize efficiency to focus on delivering services to students and parents.