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.

Image: Camp Lejeune Dependents Schools

FILED UNDER: Education, Military Affairs, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ROB says:

    Thanks for mentioning the parents of DoDDs students. Most Soldiers place emphasis not only on education, but on obedience to authority, ie, the teacher and principal, I imagine that makes a difference as well.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    Well said.

    You can estimate average IQs for enlistees from the AFQT scores, which are normed versus a representative national sample of young people. Enlistees average around 105.

  3. pacific_waters says:

    “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.” Seems obvious. Run public schools like you run DOD schools.

  4. Boyd says:

    Seems obvious. Run public schools like you run DOD schools.

    And exactly wrong, as demonstrated by the rest of the post.

  5. John Burgess says:

    I attended–and graduated from–a DOD-run high school overseas. There was certainly mix ethnicity among the students, and this at a time when the public high school I’d just left in Virginia was undertaking forced racial integration. Somewhere in the range of 1/4-1/3 of the students were not DOD dependents, but instead came from various USG civilian agencies in the country/region.

    The school was in Ankara, Turkey, but pulled boarding students from several countries that did not have DOD-approved schools.

    I considered the mix of students to be pretty average. There were really smart kids who went on to really spectacular careers in science, academia, even politics and Hollywood. There were also the screw-ups who did as little as possible and some who did everything they could to be thrown out of the school and consequently the country.

    What was very different were the teachers. Most–and there were a few glaring exceptions–were truly dedicated to imparting knowledge, if not wisdom, to their charges. The school had the administrative flexibility to create courses to engage high-achieving students while not ignoring the others. Advanced math, four-year language programs–in things like Turkish and Latin!–and regionally competing sports teams created a pretty solid student body.

    One difference from US-based public schools was that teachers were on a fixed contract. It was easy to get rid of the bad ones and they were gone after their first, problem year.

    What amazes me to this day is the sense of kinship that developed among the students. Even though my high school graduation was 45 years ago, most of my classmates are still in contact via e-mailing lists. We even managed to have several grand reunions pulling in multi-year graduates (numbering close to 1,000 at the last), as well as smaller, regional mini-reunions.

    Almost all of us consider our time in that school to have been good times and critical to our formation as adults. All who wanted, got really good educations. There were jerks, though.

  6. just me says:

    Most Soldiers place emphasis not only on education, but on obedience to authority, ie, the teacher and principal, I imagine that makes a difference as well.

    I think this is a huge key. It isn’t so much “the base commander calling your father” type stuff, but the parent at home saying to the kid “you follow the rules, or you will be in trouble at home” Not to mention that the military by its very nature emphasizes a chain of command and obedience to superiors.

    I know from working in the public schools that a lot of parents respond to a teacher telling a parent that their kid is struggling in X areas much of the time the response is that it is a failing in the teacher, a sort of “not my Johnny” response. A good many others don’t even bother to return the phone calls. I can’t imagine a military member ever failing to respond to a teacher’s contact about classroom concerns-and while there are probably a few “not my Johnny” parents in the military I am willing to bet their numbers are smaller.

    I will also say that having a standardized and consistent curriculum probably helps-at least with testing. Having a standardized curriculum means consistent coverage of specific concepts-there aren’t going to be as many gaps.

  7. anon says:

    There is the tiny, tiny confounding factor of the population selection. Just a little..

  8. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    I had an experience similar to the one described by John Burgess. I attended an overseas DoD school that was half military kids and half children of diplomats American and otherwise. When I got back to the states and went to public schools I was two grade levels ahead on everything. The public school was using the same reader in 8th grade that I had been using in 5th grade. The contrast in school performance was stark.

    If people think we should emulate the military school system, I wonder if that thinking can be extended to the military health care system. After all, the military system is almost fully socialized. You walk in, get treated, and leave. Outcomes are better and costs are lower than the average civilian health care. DoD health as reform model?

  9. just me says:

    After all, the military system is almost fully socialized. You walk in, get treated, and leave. Outcomes are better and costs are lower than the average civilian health care. DoD health as reform model?

    i disagree with better outcomes. This was not my experience. Also, having different doctors every time you walk in the door creates a situation where some things or missed, or one doctor decides the last doctor’s treatment plan was bad-even though things are being managed, but he decides to change everything anyway.

    I can say for certain i don’t want to be permanently stuck in a medical system like the military’s. Thankfully when my daughter was receiving poor and inconsistent treatment at the Navy clinic I had the option of going to an excellent civilian doctor at increased expense, but at least her treatment was better.

  10. teddon says:

    I’m an Army officer, my son attends a DoDDS school in Germany, or at least he did. The poor quality of this school led me to seek another assignment, even though we were in a great location and I loved my job. The school was substandard. Teachers were poorly qualified, disinterested, and contrary to one of the earlier posts, have been here forever (30+ years is the norm) and are nearly impossible to fire. Forget about “the principal calling the commander…”. Our commander (along with the rest of us parents) was constantly calling the principal and the teachers. It had no effect, and his daughter will be home-schooled next year. My opinion is not unique, nor is it personal, although I do feel my son was cheated out of a quality education. Many parents here have chosen to home school or to send their kids to expensive private schools or boarding schools to avoid this place. I chose to take another assignment, even though I would have preferred to stay here for professional and person reasons – the school was just that bad. “Two years ahead”? I hear the opposite from my colleagues who have moved back to the states and entered public schools – their kids are behind! I’m sure there are good DoDDS schools out there, just like there are good public schools out there. Again, contrary to another post, schools are local. A good principal + good faculty = good school, regardless of type. There is nothing magic about the DoDDS system. DoDDS schools in Germany (and probably elsewhere) have the same problems as public (and private) schools in the states – drugs, gangs, pregnancy, etc., especially in the bigger communities. Don’t even get me started on military health care.

  11. anon says:

    So glad my husband found this. I was born into and graduated from DoDDs (as it was known) and both of my parents were teachers in the system. I received a scholarship to a college in Michigan during my senior year and when I arrived and was taking placement tests, found that my senior year with DoDDs just about replaced my freshman year at college.

    I honestly believe the success of DoDDs was attributed to a few factors, most already mentioned above. The mix of ethnicities and backgrounds in the military led to a school population that was much more open minded than I’ve ever experienced here in the States. The teachers were definitely a unique bunch (I can say that as my parents are definitely unique)and were highly dedicated to teaching in often unusual environments. And the military structure that the families adhered to led to a much more respectful student body with a “readiness” to learn. We had the same cliques and teen-age angst dramas, but on a smaller scale and in a more supportive environment.

    At this risk of ticking a few people off, I honestly believe that if we had a more militaristic system, maybe we’d have better students turning into more respectful adults. I am a mother and I am not proposing the “take the rod to the child” approach. But if parents were held more accountable for their child’s actions, within reason, we’d probably have more involved communities taking part in raising those that will one day care for us.

  12. anon says:

    To “teddon” who posted above; hopefully your experience wasn’t at Ramstein as my mother teaches there?

  13. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken from all of this is not about the schools, so much, but rather, the parents…of course when you have schools where parents are involved, the results are going to be far superior to schools where parents aren’t nearly as involved, if at all…

  14. kater says:

    Great takeaway is the self-selection of students at these schools; their parents are employed full time, have access to medical care full time, and the students have had access to early education. In addition, don’t forget, the military funds these schools almost limitlessly. They don’t go begging the school board for funds or ask the students or teachers to provide the supplies. Don’t tell me THAT’s not important!

  15. John Burgess says:

    kater: Good points except for the ‘limitless funds’. That’s not the case at all.

    In large measure due to my experience as a kid living overseas, I went into the Foreign Service. In several of my positions, I served as Embassy liaison with the DOD school. Money was always an issue and bargains were always being negotiated. In the countries in which I served, the DOD school existed under the umbrella of the Embassy. Often the school’s real property, including the physical plant, was owned by State Dept. due to local laws.

    State would have to bargain for what tuition it would pay for its dependents, what DOD would pay for utilities, guards, etc.

    I’m not sure ‘self-selection’ is the right term to be using, btw. The kids certainly didn’t ‘select’ which school they attended. Depending on the country, there might not be any useful alternative as learning a language like Arabic or Turkish for two years of high school was not much of an option.

    If you’re arguing that the student population was not equivalent to a ‘normal’ US student population, you might have a point, but it would involve picking and excluding various schools, systems, cities, counties, and even states to make it work.