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Why Are Students at Military Base Schools Out-Achieving Their Civilian Peers?

Kids educated on military bases regularly outscore kids educated in public schools on national assessment tests. Is the model replicable?

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If someone asked you to describe expected achievement scores in a student population where a) many have high personal debt with only a single parent at home; b) 40% of the school population is Latino or black; and c) students can expect to change schools between six and nine times as they move through primary and secondary school, “below average results” would probably come to mind. All of these stressors, it would be fair to assume, could contribute to difficulty with math, reading and other school skills, setting students up for an uphill struggle in the classroom.

While those assumptions often hold true in the world of civilian education, a notable exception to the rule may be present on military bases around the country and the world. According to the latest available data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released in December 2011, students enrolled at Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) facilities -- the schools provided on military bases to educate students of soldiers and support personnel -- are performing at or above the national average in areas like math and reading when compared to their civilian counterparts. Critically, the results also note a narrower racial achievement gap than exists in the civilian world.

These results have become a conversation piece both in the military and in the larger world, where a number of journalists have suggested they indicate superior academic performance in DoDEA schools.

But such comparisons may be less reliable than they seem. In a conversation with AlterNet, education expert Paul Thomas cautioned that the results should be viewed with some skepticism, pointing out that comparing DoDEA schools and their civilian counterparts is difficult at best -- and that the NAEP itself can be a flawed measure of academic performance. “You must match a good deal of indicators, such as race, gender, socioeconomic, and subcategories that [are] often at the root of claimed ‘differences’ (ELL students, special needs students), before you can make any fair claim that military schools are better, the same, or worse,” Thomas explains.

This can be challenging to do, and requires, as he puts it, a lot of “tedious analysis,” some of which may be difficult to perform due to lack of data. If the data are correct, the next challenge involves identifying the sources of high student achievement and determining whether they can be replicated -- which, Thomas notes, may be impossible. “Can the causes of high achievement…be identified, and then can those cause-agents be replicated in the broader public schools that are unlike military base schools? (The answer is almost always, no.)”

Still, it seems fair to ask: If there is a performance disparity between civilian and military base schools, what’s behind it? And if the results on the racial achievement gap are accurate, what are DoDEA schools doing differently to erase that gap?

Statistics worth a second look

The Department of Defense operates almost 200 base schools around the world through the DoDEA, supplementing the 159 base schools operated within the United States by regional school districts. Up to 150,000 military children attend base schools for their education, though military parents may also opt for private schools and homeschooling.

The utterly counterintuitive NAEP statistics for military schools are especially remarkable when the full array of information about the state of life for military children becomes available – particularly when viewed alongside data about physical conditions at base schools. In a 2011 study, the Pentagon acknowledged that almost 40% of its physical facilities were failing, forcing students to attend classes in decrepit facilities. The same holds true for many base schools run by regional school districts. Catie Hunter, attending a base school at Fort Sill managed by the Lawton Public School District, describes navigating hallways filled with trashcans to collect water leaking from the ceiling of her school.