Why Are Students at Military Base Schools Out-Achieving Their Civilian Peers?
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These schools set clear achievement goals and use standardized tests not to assess teachers, but to evaluate students and determine which students may need additional help and support -- reflecting the original purpose for which such tests were designed. They also place a heavy focus on parental involvement, relying on parents and the community at large to support children in school. Many aim to create schools as community hubs for teachers and parents, recognizing that parents may feel isolated with partners overseas. For example, some schools host family resource centers and other services to attract parents and boost their involvement levels, while at others, educators and management maintain an “ open door policy” for parents, inviting contact with any questions or concerns at any time during the school year.
When it comes to ameliorating the racial achievement gap, base schools also boast an historical advantage; military schools integrated students of different races earlier than civilian ones did, and nonwhite students may find it easier to learn in environments where they’re surrounded by diverse peers and instructors. Like the military itself, base schools aim to address potential discrimination and to provide equal opportunities for people of all races, including access to high quality education. High parental involvement is also credited as an important factor in the possible shrinking racial achievement gap at military base schools.
Finally, a focus on “good teaching” is central to base schools’ success. Administrators work to keep workplace satisfaction levels high at base schools, with the goal of attracting and retaining good teachers. Instead of relying on standardized tests with their accompanying flaws to gauge teacher performance in the classroom, administrators at base schools are more likely to visit and observe classes, meet with teachers individually, and interact with students and parents to assess satisfaction and achievement levels. This system rewards innovative and creative instruction that improves learning conditions for students, rather than obliging teachers to “teach to the test,” focusing on testing guides rather than the needs of their students.
Notably, as part of its accountability programs, the DoDEA conducts a biannual survey covering parents, teachers and students. The survey is used to determine where the system needs improvement, part of an evidence-based approach to education. In the most recent results, from the 2010-2011 school year, 77% of parents rated their schools with an A or B, mirroring their children – 73% gave the same marks to their schools. The use of detailed surveys and questionnaires is a common practice across the military, where such data can be valuable for improving performance and addressing concerns from people throughout the ranks.
Flaws within the base school system
Still, it’s not the case that every base school gets an A grade when it comes to providing the kind of supportive environments they claim to strive for. When looking at overall student performance statistics, it can be easy to forget to read between the lines, and while some DoDEA students are indeed performing better than civilian students, others are clearly struggling and may not be getting the support they need to succeed. Digging deeper, it becomes obvious that while base schools may be racking up superior academic performance in some cases, the daily environment for the students is not always pleasant.
United States Navy veteran Brandann Hill-Mann, whose husband is still on active duty, notes that the culture at her base school has been less than supportive for her daughter:
Given the nature of military lives, I was surprised that the school seemed largely unprepared for a mid-term transfer. The teacher acted put out that we had trouble integrating [my daughter] in. The focus is very clearly on the group rather than the individual, and the classes are predictably larger [than in civilian classrooms]. There is very little adjustment time allowed before the student is expected to be caught up with the current goings on in the class.
Her concerns are mirrored by many respondents to the latest DoDEA survey, who also cited class size as a concern. Furthermore, Hill-Mann agrees with many parents on the DoDEA survey on another important topic: while schools allegedly commit to anti-bullying efforts, the truth on the ground can be very different for students and parents: