DoD Schools as Reform Model?
Tim Harwood looks at a recent National Center of Education Statistics report [PDF] titled “Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.” In particular, he highlights the fact that “Black students at the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have consistently scored at the top or near the top in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) when compared to their peers attending non-military schools.”
The DoDEA’s success is not an isolated event. The system serves over 84,000 students in 12 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. According to a 2007 Education World article DoDEA schools share many characteristics of typically found in low-performing public schools. Forty percent of students are minorities, 50 percent of the students eligible for free lunches, and a 35 percent annual mobility rate. “Yet, the schools have a 97 percent high school graduation rate, and the majority of students go on to higher education,” Education World finds. DoDEA’s success is attributed to factors inside and outside of the classroom.
Within the school, DoDEA has high academic expectations of students and regularly assess students’ progress. All schools use the same curriculum and have standardized classroom procedures to make students’ transition process less stressful. External factors might play an even more important role. Behavioral problems are not an issue due to the values students are taught at home. This in turn allow teachers to spend more time on teaching.
Harwood figures that “Militarizing all public schools is not a practical approach to school reform” and suggests that base schools start partnering with underperforming local schools to help get them up to speed.
Matt Yglesias is intrigued:
It’s not entirely clear what lessons you should take for public school reform from these facts since the DoDEA schools are run in a totally different way from public schools in the United States. But one lesson is that there’s a decent case that public education in the United States really ought to be radically different from how it is; much more standardized and centrally directed rather than seen as basically a local community amenity.
DoDEA does a lot of early childhood, operates a uniform six-year curriculum cycle, has a lot of parental involvement (the ability to issue orders to parents helps), and even though soldiers are often from low-SES backgrounds they and their families have access to very comprehensive social services.
My dad was in the Army until he retired during my sophomore year in high school. For the most part, we lived off base and I attended local schools. The exceptions were my 4th grade year at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and my 5th, 6th, and 7th grade years in Kaiserslautern, Germany. The base schools were, without question, much more challenging.
But here’s the thing: Even though I’ve got little formal training in pedagogy, I could transform even the worst urban school into a model institution overnight if I could choose the parents. Alas, that’s not a tool we can give public school principals. Conversely, despite the apparently widespread notion that enlisted soldiers are a bunch of morons and reprobates, they’re in fact a rigorously selected, highly trained, and ruthlessly culled group. By the time they have children of school age, they’re generally in their third or fourth tour of duty, having been selected for promotion at least five times.
While enlistment standards have declined in recent years because it’s harder to get people to volunteer with two shooting wars going on, the fact remains that most young people are ineligible for the Army; 73 percent of the 17 to 24 age cohort are deemed “morally, intellectually or physically” unfit for service.
A few years back, I wrote about the “Myth of the Underprivileged Soldier” and noted:
- According to a comprehensive study of all enlistees for the years 1998-99 and 2003 that The Heritage Foundation just released, the typical recruit in the all-volunteer force is wealthier, more educated and more rural than the average 18- to 24-year-old citizen is. Indeed, for every two recruits coming from the poorest neighborhoods, there are three recruits coming from the richest neighborhoods.
- 98% joined with high-school diplomas or better. By comparison, 75% of the general population meets that standard. Among all three-digit ZIP code areas in the USA in 2003 (one can study larger areas by isolating just the first three digits of ZIP codes), not one had a higher graduation rate among civilians than among its recruits.
- In fact, since the 9/11 attacks, more volunteers have emerged from the middle and upper classes and fewer from the lowest-income groups. In 1999, both the highest fifth of the nation in income and the lowest fifth were slightly underrepresented among military volunteers. Since 2001, enlistments have increased in the top two-fifths of income levels but have decreased among the lowest fifth.
- Allegations that recruiters are disproportionately targeting blacks also don’t hold water. First, whites make up 77.4% of the nation’s population and 75.8% of its military volunteers, according to our analysis of Department of Defense data. Second, we explored the 100 three-digit ZIP code areas with the highest concentration of blacks, which range from 24.1% black up to 68.6%. These areas, which account for 14.6% of the adult population, produced 16.6% of recruits in 1999 and only 14.1% in 2003.
Yes, DoD schools have a larger proportion of black students than the population as a whole. But “black” isn’t a synonym for “underprivileged” or “low-SES.” Black children of mid-career non-commissioned officers have at least one parent who has a steady job, a high school diploma or equivalent, a clean criminal record, a high degree of personal discipline, and is regularly tested for illicit drug use. Their parents are extraordinarily likely to insist that they attend school every day, do their homework, and behave themselves.
The business about “oh, the principal can call the commander if the kid misbehaves” is overplayed. While it’s true that all manner of things that aren’t the boss’ business in most jobs can become so in the military, the fact of the matter is that soldiers who have made it into a second enlistment have demonstrated that they’re mature, responsible citizens.
Give me only students whose parents meet that profile, and I’ll give you an outstanding school.