The military’s school system led the country on the “nation’s report card” this year, with 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores ranging anywhere from 15 to 23 points higher than corresponding national average scores.
While most of the country saw historic declines on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Department of Defense Education Activity scores held steady or—in the case of 8th grade reading—even increased since 2019. The Department of Defense operates 160 schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, and two territories, serving more than 66,000 students.
Michael A. Pope teaches 8th grade science at the middle and high school in Camp Zama, a U.S. Army base in Japan. Pope also sits on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP. Pope was here in Washington for a board meeting this month and spoke to Education Week about why he thinks students from military families did so well on the assessment, post-pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We’re very happy with our results. I have to be very honest and candid with you—I think it’s because of the resilience of our teachers and students. It’s a very unique blend of students and a very unique situation.
Our kids are used to stressful situations. We have kids who experience trauma in different ways because of deployments. A military kid may spend two years in my location and then be all over the world. They’re very transient. They don’t really have stability. They’re used to constant change, not always having a place to call home. So being in a pandemic, they adjusted very, very quickly.
Being that we are a military facility, we adjusted very quickly to give kids resources they did not have. We tried to get back to normal as much as possible, as we could within parameters, so that we kept kids focused on the task at hand, or the end goal, which was getting through the school year.
We were all still in school [throughout the pandemic]. We were out of school for a short time, about a month or so, and then we were right back in. We just had a lot of safety protocols and safeguards. We had to really keep our kids engaged because we’re supporting the mission of the United States.
When it comes to the assessment, it’s just a part of going through the normalization of being in a traditional brick-and-mortar school. [Editor’s note: In DoDEA schools, all students in 4th and 8th grade take the exam. In other locations, samples of students are tested.] I think our students viewed it as just a normal routine.
The pandemic was seen as a roadblock—a slowing down, an impediment. But the resilience of the students and teachers kind of saw us through that. We just continued on.
On how the military schools’ results fit in the overall national picture
We’re in a different sphere. We are with, but we are beyond. We feel the impact [of the pandemic], but we have a very unique experience because we are a different line item budget. [Educators] do feel the need to play multiple roles in our schools. NAEP data shows that—we need people to give these extra services to kids because even though we did pretty well, we still see that there are multiple deficiencies across the board.
[Editor’s note: Black and Hispanic students in the DoDEA schools outperformed their national counterparts, although they still lagged behind white students in DoDEA schools.]
The difference between our schools [and traditional public schools] is we have smaller schools. Usually, the teacher will have a kid for multiple years and have multiple exposures to the same kids. They know the needs of the kids. It makes it easier to provide those services because you already feel a [connection] to that kid—which is not always the case when you’re stateside because, you know, bigger schools, larger capacities for kids. It’s hard to make those connections because you have such a huge student base to make an impact on.
Even though we do see some success with the DoDEA schools, we can’t be complacent and say, “Oh, we are the outliers that set the standard.” We are just very fortunate this year because of the resilience of our kids and our staff.
I do feel the pains of the stateside schools, because that is the reality of the world. Ours is not always the reality of the world. ... We gotta be realistic, you know? We have a similar [student] base, but a very different infrastructure, and that makes it easier for us to maintain and to push the expectations of NAEP, which is to improve our students.
We can learn from [stateside schools]. A lot of our kids will eventually transition back. We spend a lot of time preparing them for the transition. Being in an environment where everything is very closed off—it’s a very tight-knit community. It’s like a Mayberry-kind of town. And then you go back to the reality of stateside schools, where you have large schools. The school I teach at now, we have less than 400 kids, and that’s middle school and high school.
That’s what I think the beauty of NAEP is. It gives us a lens into not only our school, but what’s going on in stateside schools.