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

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.

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.

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:

There is a very public message that bullying is not permitted on school grounds, but that is not my experience. The kids are taught classes in how to basically "buck up" and not take things so personally. I feel like there is a very narrow definition of bullying, and everything else is just "kids play." I am not aware that hate speech is considered bullying (I have heard the words "gay" and "retarded" used pejoratively, even by teachers).

As for parental involvement, Hill-Mann says, a heavy burden is placed on women, along with the assumption that all servicemembers are men. As a parent, she’s pushed to participate in school activities and in many cases to make up for shortcomings at the school:

I feel like a lot of school activities would cease to happen without parent volunteers. Time is considered free for use. All the on-base sports activities…are coached by parent volunteers and not anyone specifically qualified to be leading the sport. Little more than a background check is required before taking these duties on.

Hill-Mann’s experiences with her base school suggest that the progress for which the Department of Defense has been praised may not be the whole picture. If students are performing well but struggling with bullying and large class sizes, how supportive is the learning environment? Hill-Mann’s concerns about group-focused learning also ring alarm bells when it comes to disabled students, who may need accommodations in the classroom. In 2011, the General Accounting Office found that the military may not be adequately serving disabled students, and recommended better screening for such students along with firmer accountability standards. The Air Force, in particular, has been criticized for failing disabled students: some installations have no special needs coordinator, others fail to offer accessible education services at all, and in some cases the educational opportunities available to the disabled are limited – all in direct contravention of the law.

Is the DoDEA a model for civilian education?

Looking at the model of education offered by the Pentagon, one might wonder if it’s possible to transfer the best of what it offers – like an emphasis on parental involvement and community building around the schoolhouse -- to the civilian world. Some might argue that military culture is a key factor, making it difficult to provide the same kind of educational opportunities to civilian students, but there’s more at work here than that. The genuine commitment to students, education and family life in some DoDEA schools seems as important as the culture in which base schools are rooted, and there is no doubt that this emphasis is something civilian “reformers” should be working to embrace.

Evaluating base schools to find out more about what is working and why could provide valuable information for those in the civilian world looking to improve student learning on an organic level –rather than on meeting flawed government metrics. A high-quality, free public education should be available to all students in the US no matter where they are, and if base schools offer any positive lessons in that regard, their achievements ought to be studied more closely.


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