The best school system

The best school system in the U.S. is run by the Defense Department, says a USA Today story. In the U.S. and overseas, students at Pentagon schools post consistently high test scores, and minority achievement is strong.

Last year, black and Hispanic eighth-graders in these schools outperformed their peers in all 50 states in reading.

. . . At Fort Campbell High School, where minority students account for about half of enrollment, nearly three in four seniors go on to college. More than one in four take rigorous Advanced Placement classes. During a recent AP calculus class, nearly half the students speeding through square roots were black or Hispanic.

Kids who need extra help get it long before their grades falter. Incoming freshmen with below-average math scores, for instance, receive an additional 50 minutes of algebra instruction each day.

Principal Kenneth Killebrew said the key is high standards for all, regardless of race or rank.

Parents are strongly urged to participate in their children’s education. On rare occasions, a principal will call a commanding officer to complain that a parent didn’t show up for a conference.

Military students move frequently, which tends to lower achievement, but that’s mitigated by the common curriculum used at Pentagon schools around the world. About one fourth of students are considered low-income, similar to the poverty rate in non-military schools.

I grew up near Fort Sheridan, then headquarters of the Fifth Army, and went to high school with Army brats whose fathers had been stationed in Germany and Okinawa. At that time, military schools had a mediocre reputation. I wonder how that changed.

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  1. I’m not sure that the DOD schools have improved so much as the civilian schools have deteriorated. There are exceptions (such as TC Williams in Alexandria VA) but by and large a lot of civilian schools can’t be bothered to maintain the same standards as the DOD schools.

  2. The [obvious] key? DISCIPLINE. The military has it, other schools, to a large degree, don’t. This goes for public and private schools.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re low SES — you can be academically successful. If you’ve got a strong backing at home, and discipline, you’ll succeed.

  3. Rita C. says:

    I don’t even have a working phone number for some of my parents. Can you imagine what would happen if I called the boss of one of my student’s parents and told them that not only was the kid being a little turd, that the parent wasn’t doing anything about it? Man, lawsuit city.

  4. Living on post to attend a DoD school or having dependents overseas and attending a school is a privilige. If the children get too disruptive they are gone along with the families. Also the parents of the chidren attending a high school are pretty select group. They are all field grade or better officers or senior NCOs in an up or our promotion system that demands professional and civilan education. I agree with Kevin that the DOD schools have not really improved, other school systems got worse.

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    Base schools still know what they are there for.

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    And obviously no unions.

  7. I went to DoD schools every year except grades 7-9. Military brats grow up with the fear that if they do anything wrong or screw around in school, it can have a negative impact on their parent’s military career. I suspect that is mostly urban legand, but it is quite effective. I also believe I feel well behind the other military kids those years we lived off base, and I never really caught back up academically.

    Also, DoD schools don’t hesitate to boot problem students. No lawsuits, and a minimum of due dilegence is involved! I went to high school overseas and a classmate that was busted with pot(1st offense) not only got kicked out of school, he was kicked out of the country and sent back stateside. I don’t remember him having bad grades or really causing any other problems. (This was the mid-80’s)

  8. The overall great results of DoD schools–especially with minority and low-income students–are indeed worth examining.

    DoD schools get those results because
    1. their administrators have *zero* tolerance for disciplinary problems
    2. every parent is 100% cooperative with the school system
    3. no one–parent or student–is encouraged to use any race-based excuses for low performance
    4. no one in authority backs off of doing the right thing because of fear of being sued

    I like what I’ve been seeing with Joanne’s ideas and your readers’ thoughts. Keep up the good work!

  9. The combination of discipline (students + parents + teachers) and no unions probably explains the difference.

    If 10% of a society actually does most of the work, where does the US get its 10%? A few from public schools. The rest? Private schools, DOD schools, charter schools, homeschooled–and the remainder imported from overseas.

  10. Moira Rogow says:

    I have a decidedly different take on overseas schools. We were overseas for 7 years (Germany – 3 yrs and Korea – 4 yrs). The schools were heavily unionized and the parents had very little say in anything that went on there. Many schools had problems with discipline. The quality of the cirriculum was quite poor and since it was ‘world-wide’ you could not get away from it. It took my daughter 2 years of hard work to get over ‘Math-land’ and we were helping her before we moved! We are now in Texas, have moved twice, but the first school was a low-income (99% free lunch) in El Paso. It was a significant improvement over any of the past military schools in both cirriculum and attitude of staff towards parents and students. The honors and AP courses are much more prevalent and the discipline is quite severe. It is a vast improvement over any military school. I am also an ‘Army Brat’ and went to quite a few DOD schools both in the states and overseas. The standards are much lower than when I attended. A lot of this I feel, had to do with the heavily unionized work environment, as many (career) teachers had an almost hostile reaction when dealing with parents and would not give up 15 minutes a day (in one school) to extend the school day for the lunch periods to go from 20 minutes to 35. My children are much better off now and we live in a majority minority city (San Antonio).
    Forgive my rant!

  11. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Three things:

    1) Property of averages: If the DOD schools can get rid of (or don’t have in the first place) the worst problems, the average goes up. Thus they would look better than public schools even if they didn’t do any better at educating the non-problem students.

    2) Of course, the worst students do disrupt things, and not having them does allow DOD schools to do better with non-problem students.

    3) From sf’s post:
    “1. their administrators have *zero* tolerance for disciplinary problems.
    4. no one in authority backs off of doing the right thing because of fear of being sued”

    To put it another way, the authorities can do anything they want to a student, for any petty reason or no reason, and neither the students nor their parents have any effective recourse. Remember all the stories in this blog about students being penalized for ridiculous reasons? Maybe those things don’t happen in DOD schools. Or maybe we just don’t hear about it. The military does some things astoundingly well. But the military also let rape at service academies become an epidemic before they did anything about it — and then because outside publicity forced them to. The military record on respect for the rank and file is mixed.

    Tyranny (“discipline” to conservatives) does have its advantages. Crime rates were lower under Communism. But on the whole, I’m glad I live under a chaotic civilian government.

  12. D. Cooper says:

    If you read SF’s list its pretty obvious how its done. Mad of course and RB’s union barb I would refute however. I would love to have taught under those conditions. If you don’t think that any teacher union would die for those conditions, you’re crazy. With what these schools have, any school system would thrive. If you read all the posts, the advantages that DoD school has, the public schools are lacking. I would suggest that the lack is not due to teacher unions. Could we get off that kick.

    Of that list above, #2 is probably the most important … with that, all else falls into place.

  13. P. K. Pruitt says:

    Conservatives’ “discipline” is “tyranny”?! How is holding people (students and parents included) accountable for their actions, tyranny? I hold myself accountable for my own actions…is that self-tyranny?

  14. D. Cooper says:

    PKP, I’m afraid Rich is the parent who’d be the first in line with his lawyer whenever someone down at the school house scolded his precious junior.

    Just one of the battles the public schools and their unions have to fight.

  15. Walter Wallis says:

    Zero Tolerance is the opposite of discipline.

    D.B. is right again.

  16. I also went through DoD schools in 1st and 2nd grade (umpty-mumble years ago **g**). As Moira pointed out, they can be rather faddish. Looking back, I was treated more like an experimental animal than a student (would any of you put a 2nd-grader in a 5th grade class just because she could read at a 5th grade level?).

    I would think though that as a subset of the population, military parents would tend to be more homogeneous in regards to discipline, which ought to have some sort of effect on their children.

  17. Members of my family work in both administration and staff of Dod schools. There tends to be a hierarchy: air force parents/students have higher test scores, enlisted kids (army, and some marine) schools have more discipline problems.

    Still, given the tight-knit communities and close working relationships developed between military families and personnel, it’s no wonder that discipline and expectations are held to a higher standard. The addition of accountability to one’s community at large acts as a powerful force, too.

  18. I went through DoD schools until the 10th grade when my father retired and we returned stateside. When I went back to a civilan school, they were scrambling to find classes for my sister and I because we had almost entirely covered their curriculm for high school, with the exception of math classes.

    It’s not a complete urban myth that military parents won’t get called on the carpet for their children. I was having an attendance problem (read: cut class ALL the time). The first call the school made was not to my parents but to my father’s commander. Yep, it was the last time I skipped.

  19. PJ/Maryland says:

    I grew up near Fort Sheridan, then headquarters of the Fifth Army, and went to high school with Army brats whose fathers had been stationed in Germany and Okinawa. At that time, military schools had a mediocre reputation. I wonder how that changed.

    Joanne, maybe you’ve found the topic for your next book?

  20. My kids went to a DoD school on Camp Lejeune, NC for the first few years of their education-before we moved here to California (no DoD schools here, even on base.) I absolutely loved the DoD schools. They had so much experience dealing with children who moved frequently and whose parents were constantly deployed. The teachers my children had were excellent- warm and caring, yet firm in their rules and educational standards. The principal knew every student by name. There was one teacher in the school that *every* student wanted to avoid-she was pretty strict, liked to yell, and didn’t bother to decorate her classroom at all. Reminded me of a teacher in my elementary school. But other than that, it was a real community, with high academic and behavioral standards.

  21. Walter Wallis says:

    JJ’s next book already has a title – “How to raise a perfect daughter.”

  22. DoD schools are unionized.

  23. One contribution is that the military _will_ give you time for personal stuff if they can fit it into their training and duty as long it is not abused. The parents can show up during what is normal work hours for volunteer and extracurricular activities.

  24. D. Cooper says:

    George … hope that’s not true, Mad will have conniptions

  25. Kirk Parker says:

    D. Cooper,

    > If you don’t think that any teacher union would
    > die for those conditions, you’re crazy.

    I don’t think so, but I’m no crazy, merely observant. Now, perhaps what you really meant was, “any teacher union’s rank-and-file”, and if so I’d agree with you. But the actions of the actual unions speak otherwise. The WEA is a case in point–it is so politicized, and so arrogant, that it actually has received the highest-ever fine for campaign finance violations in Washington State history, and just announced in the wake of Washington’s newly-passed charter school law a referendum campaign to try to overturn it. What do these things have to do with furthering the items on jk’s list? Nothing that I can see…

  26. Dave Dahlke says:

    Give credit where credit is due. A lot of this positive action is due to disciplined military parents.

  27. D. Cooper says:

    Kirk…I Can’t speak for WEA … I’m on the ‘right’ coast in NY. If they’re arrogant, that’s unfortunate. NYSUT is a very active and formidable union in NY and I believe that they promote educational policies that improve education in the state as well as defend and promote the welfare of teachers. To that extent they support teachers in the classroom and in particular come to their support when issues arise where legal assistance is needed.

    In any event, I will agree that the rank and file would die for these conditions but in no way do I believe that a teacher’s union would undermine those desires. It just wouldn’t make any sense to do so.

  28. I ate dinner with a group of military wives the other night and we were talking about this exact article. One of them, a DoD math teacher, said that some of this is tricky statistics. For example, if a DoD student signs up to take an AP class, he is *required* to take the AP test at the end. At most public schools in the US, it’s optional. Therefore, you have a higher percentage of students taking the AP tests in the first place, and some borderline kids who might not have opted to take the test at a public school end up taking it and passing it. So the percentages go up.

    (I’m currently reading How to Lie With Statistics, so I am reading everything with an eagle eye this week…)

  29. Roger Sweeny says:

    Of course, every teacher (and union) would love to have sf’s 4 conditions. Which were:

    1. their administrators have *zero* tolerance for disciplinary problems
    2. every parent is 100% cooperative with the school system
    3. no one–parent or student–is encouraged to use any race-based excuses for low performance
    4. no one in authority backs off of doing the right thing because of fear of being sued.

    But they know they’re never going to get them. So the question is, what do you do for a second best? The union answer is often “pay and perks based on seniority and courses taken.” Period.

    My experience of some fairly “good” public schools has been that it’s pretty much the flip side of the WW II slogan, “Give us the tools and we’ll do the job.” In the schools, it’s, “We know you won’t give us the tools, so don’t expect us to do the job.” Not that we won’t do what we can under the circumstances. But we expect to be paid for putting the time in and keeping our nose clean, not for getting results.

    It’s an unwritten compact between the teachers and the school system. The school system says, “We won’t back you up, but we won’t punish you if you don’t succeed either.”

    This is one reason that so many teachers (and especially unions) are bent out of shape by No Child Left Behind. It breaks the compact by demanding results.

  30. D. Cooper says:

    And the beatings will continue…Welcome Roger to beat the teacher (or their unions) … to argue is futile, ..but whenever teachers are backed up and supported by their administration, you’ve got a pretty good school environment. The belief in the extent to which teacher unions support and promote that environment is dependent what you’ve experienced. I’ll not argue with anyone’s individual experience, but some paint with a broad brush that does not give a true picture.

    Sarah … regarding students being required to take an AP exam … our administration also gave students an option to take or not take the AP exam …pressure from parents was the usual source of that pressure … the AP teachers fought it vehemently (no real place for the union to step in here … not their domain) … I do believe that now students must agree to take the exam. But, if a parents refuses to allow their little darling to take the test I don’t suppose there’s much you can do. If they don’t show up for the exam … oh well! I once again will state the parental support is one of the key elements in education. After that, all else becomes a little easier.

  31. At my kid’s school the parents (and students) have to sign a contract agreeing that the kid will take the AP test before she’s allowed to sign up for AP.

  32. D. Cooper says:

    Laura … that’s the way it ought to be … some kids sign up for them in their senior year for transcript enhancement, then bail out when convenient. Senioritis is not a pretty thing!

  33. Rita C. says:

    NCLB is, temporarily, a pain in my backside. I doubt it will be around long enough to make much difference. Call me Miss Cleo, but I confidently predict that we will not be at 100% proficiency by 2014.

    On the bright side (?), I spent $60 yesterday (out of my own pocket) on food to feed my students during our assessment testing. That is roughly the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries for my family when we don’t have an exchange student. Perhaps NCLB is simply the Bush administration’s idea of an economic stimulus package.

  34. One thing about the DoD schools I’ve heard (can’t remember the source, but it was probably a newspaper) is that the budgets per student are higher than the average for civilian schools. This could be the economics of scale (smaller schools in the DoD system still need facilities, etc.) or the fact that shipping textbooks to Bahrain costs a lot, but it is something I read about somewhere. And the fact that Rumsfeld proposed cutbacks for base schools conveniently backs up my memory. It’s quite likely that money is another thing to add to discipline and those other factors.

    And it doesn’t matter if the schools are unionized or not, what matters if whether the union and management care more about education or about stupid territorial pissing contests.

  35. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think many teachers (and certainly most teachers unions) have said, “What do I have control over?

    “Can I make parents support education?

    “Can I make students care?

    “Can I make students behave?

    “Can I make students learn?”

    No, no, no, and no.

    “Can I ‘cover’ the curriculum?”


    “Therefore, I should be paid for covering the curriculum.”

  36. Jon,
    I think you are right that DoD schools are above average in per pupil spending. In the early 80s they were below averqage. But how do they determine costs? Spending is hard to measure. I do not think DoDEA pays for some of the things a school district would, like its buildings or utilities. They pay no interest on any bonds. I should point out that DoD paid for the schools that the county runs on Fort Belvoir. I personally was sent to pick up trash at one of the DoD schools in Germany when I was not a DODEA employee. They can get free help from the miitary commuities they serve as well as logistical help from the military tranportation system.

  37. george:

    Once again, the search for meaningful statistics is up against that damn apples and oranges thing. It reminds me of the fact that Arizona has low per capita spending on education (a fact used to cite our legislature’s perennial lack of caring about children). What isn’t mentioned is that our high percentage of students on Reservations makes the statistics skewed, since their education comes from Federal and Tribal funds.

  38. Scott Pearson says:

    Raised as an Air Force dependent, I attended several types of schools. I attended public schools dominated by military dependents. I attended public schools NOT dominated by military dependents. And I attended schools run by the U.S. Government. The quality of the learning environment was highest in the US Gov’t school, followed closely by the military-dependent-dominated public school. By far the worst learning environment was the public school in which the military dependents were far outnumbered by non-military kids.

    That latter public school suffered from an incredible lack of discipline and accountability. Fights in the halls were a daily occurrence. Classroom disruptions were commonplace. And I even saw a teacher get floored by a student (non-military-dependent) who refused to take off his hat before entering the instructor’s classroom.

    In most public schools, teachers and administration have their hands tied when it comes to discipline. Even if the school staff cares, they are frequently dealing with parents who do not. In a DoD school, teachers can call commanders who can “persuade” parents to control the behavior of their children. In the civilian public schools, such powers of “persuasion” do not exist. In DoD schools, students can ultimately be kicked out of the school (and if overseas, sometimes even forced to return to the States). In public schools, there is virtually no threat of permanently removing disruptive students from school. The result is the lack of a proper learning environment and a downward spiral of lower achievement.

    Until the public school systems are empowered with a method of removing disruptive students, public school will always be second-rate compared to their DoD counterparts. (Note: the ability to remove disruptive students is, in my view, also the reason private schools consistently rate higher than public schools.)

    What do we as a society do with disruptive students? I wholeheartedly support the idea of building regional boarding schools to which disruptive students are sent. Getting the problem kids away from their goofball parents would help the kids, and removing their antics from public school classroom would benefit the remaining students. The parents of the problem kids would have to pay the extra cost of housing their kid at the regional school (or do community service): much like paying a fine for delinquency. If those parents balk, then their child does not go to ANY public school. That sounds harsh, but so be it. How much longer must the majority suffer due to the minority?

    Self discipline is key to education now and to success in life later. Either we as a society establish, enforce, and fund a discipline-based educational system or we’ll pay the price later for not doing so. One might argue we are already paying the price.