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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why are Dept of Defense schools so good?

The highest-scoring school district in the country isn't a school district, reports Sarah Mervosh in the New York Times. The "Defense Department's schools outscored every jurisdiction in math and reading last year and managed to avoid widespread pandemic losses," according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Black and Hispanic eighth-graders outperformed the national averages for white students in reading. In addition, "eighth graders whose parents only graduated from high school . . . performed as well in reading as students nationally whose parents were college graduates." That's very unusual.

While DoD schools reopened quickly during the pandemic, the trend goes back to 2013, when students in military schools began gaining in national tests, Mervosh writes. "Even as the country’s lowest-performing students — in the bottom 25th percentile — have slipped further behind, the Defense Department’s lowest-performing students have improved in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading."

“If the Department of Defense schools were a state, we would all be traveling there to figure out what’s going on.”-- Martin West, Harvard education professor.

So what is the DoD's secret?

Military parents have jobs, housing and medical benefits, she points out. (On the flip side, military families move frequently, and children with a deployed parent face extra stress. Junior enlisted personnel don't make much money.)

DoD schools are integrated by race and socioeconomic status: enrollment is 42 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black, 6 percent Asian, and 15 percent multiracial.

Teachers are relatively well-paid, and tend to stay on the job. (I'd guess that relatively well-behaved students make their job easier.)

The DoD rolled out a new curriculum, starting in 2015, that is used in every school around the world. Teachers do not do their own thing.

Cicely Abron, an eighth-grade math teacher at a Ft. Moore, Georgia school "receives detailed feedback from coaches and administrators who observe her class," writes Mervosh. "Collaboration with other teachers is required and built into her weekly schedule."

In top-performing countries, leaders don't try to build an "all-star team," says Jason Dougal, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Effective jurisdictions have a “systemic way of improving everybody on the team.”

Common values are the key, writes Matthew Levey, an education leader and charter school founder. "The belief in hard work, self-discipline, and responsibility, both to one’s self and other group, are central to the military’s success."

Those values used to be widely shared, he writes. Now, progressive educators think social forces -- not individual decisions -- determine success. "'Work hard, be nice,' is for suckers."

Of course, the military doesn't take just anyone. Public schools can't require prospective parents to "pass the ASVAB (Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery) to enroll their child in kindergarten," writes Levey. But school leaders could build strong school communities around values such as hard work and respect for others. Many parents would buy in. "Schools where parents share common beliefs are generally more successful," he writes.

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