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DOD-Run Schools Cited For Closing Achievement Gaps

By Debra Viadero — October 17, 2001 4 min read
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For ideas on raising the achievement of minority students, a report released last week says, the nation’s public school systems should draw some lessons from their sister schools serving the children of U.S. military personnel stationed in the United States and abroad.

The report, prepared by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is based on visits to 15 middle schools around the world operated by the Department of Defense. With roughly 112,000 students in 170 schools, the system is comparable in size of the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district in North Carolina.

“March Toward Excellence,” September 2001, is available from the National Education Goals Panel. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

If it were a state, the report says, the system would rank first or second nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of exams given periodically to representative groups of students in most states. On the 1998 NAEP exam in 8th grade writing, for example, only one state—Connecticut— outperformed the Pentagon-run schools.

The school system has attracted the most attention in recent years, however, for its record with minority students. On the NAEP exams, for example, African-American students in Department of Defense schools often outperform their black peers in every participating state, and the gap between the black DOD students and their white counterparts is narrower than it is in most states. (“Minority Gaps Smaller in Some Pentagon Schools,” March 29, 2000.)

“If we’re ever going to reach the lofty goal of all children achieving in school, it’s going to require closing that achievement gap,” said John W. Barth, the chairman of National Education Goals Panel, a bipartisan group of federal and state officials formed to advance the education goals set for the United States in 1990.

The panel hired the Vanderbilt researchers to do the new study.

What the study team found is that the Defense Department system’s success appears to be due to a combination of factors, some of them owing to the schools and some of them owing to built-in advantages that come from life on a military post.

“There is a mutually supportive relationship between the community culture and the educational leadership practices embedded in these schools,” said Claire E. Smrekar, the Vanderbilt project’s lead researcher. “But we think you can separate some of these good educational leadership practices and embrace them and utilize them to promote higher achievement in public schools that don’t have that kind of cohesive, well-defined community culture that the military benefits from.”

Characteristics in Common

In demographics, the Pentagon-run schools look a lot like schools in many urban districts, the report points out. Minority students make up 40 percent of enrollment, and 80 percent of all the students served are the children of modestly paid enlisted personnel, rather than officers. Even though the children have roofs over their heads and free medical care, half are poor enough to qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

The system is also challenged by a mobility rate rivaling that of many city schools. On average, 35 percent of children in Department of Defense schools change schools during a year.

In addition, the report notes, the average $8,900 that the Pentagon spends per pupil, while higher than the national average, is about as much as large civilian school systems spend.

But the researchers also found that the DOD schools were unique in the level of “corporate commitment” they enjoy in their communities. Military commanders, for example, offer schools a wide range of help—not the least of which is a standing order to personnel that their “place of duty” during parent-teacher conference time is at their children’s schools.

Military Villages

Whether at home or abroad, the report observes, military bases function like self-contained villages, with their own churches, movie theaters, and grocery stores. As one Marine commander told the researchers: “This is like Leave-it-to-Beaver land; it’s cloistered and protected, but it is a shared responsibility.”

Teachers in the schools held unusually high expectations for all their students, the researchers found. National survey data, in fact, showed that black and Hispanic students in the base schools were almost twice as likely as their counterparts in regular public schools to agree that their teachers expected much of them.

Ms. Smrekar and her research partners, James W. Guthrie, Debra E. Owens, and Pearl G. Sims, also praise the system for its “mix of top-down and bottom-up decisionmaking.”

Although the DOD school system’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., sets goals for all the schools, local administrators can decide how to meet those targets and then tailor staff-development programs accordingly. The schools use results from systemwide assessments to diagnose where they are falling short.

“I think it’s those high expectations of teachers and that instructional leadership of principals that can really be duplicated anywhere,” said Joe Tafoya, the director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, the umbrella agency that oversees both the domestic and overseas schools.

“Getting the president of IBM to release all his employees for parent-conference days is a little harder to do.”

Other factors that could be contributing the schools’ success, the report says, include: teachers who are well-trained and paid better than the average; a high proportion of small schools; high-quality preschool programs and after-school care; and adequate classroom resources.

“Compared to the common experience for minority students in this country,” Ms. Smrekar said, “these schools are just vastly different and vastly better.”


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