The 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress confirmed a strong trend: soldiers’ children outperform public school students in reading and math.
The U.S. military runs K-12 schools for service members’ children on bases, ports, posts, and military installations around the world. NAEP has reported higher average scores among Department of Defense Dependents Schools students than their public-school peers for years.
Elaine Kanellis, deputy communications chief for the schools’ umbrella agency, theorizes the military culture, more than curriculum, determines the difference.
“The military places a very high priority on education—to make it to the next rank or to advance, you have to have your education checked,” Kanellis said. “So that importance of school is there and that parental involvement is there because parents know the importance of education. The school is a focal point of the military community.”
The NAEP assesses schools every two years, most recently in 2011. About 100 DoDDS participated in the fourth-grade assessment and 50 schools in the eighth-grade tests.
In fourth-grade math, the average score for DoDDS students was 241, while the national average was 240. Reading scores, however, were markedly higher. In reading, 39 percent of fourth graders at DoDDS received proficient scores—7 percentage points higher than public school students and better than 45 states. Only one state performed significantly higher.
Strong Parental Involvement
“With the base schools, there is perhaps more parental involvement than you find than in many other schools,” said Arnold Goldstein, director for Design, Analysis, and Reporting at the National Center for Education Statistics.
Military communities often function separately from the surrounding locale, with their own set of police and schools, and a post or base commander serving as “mayor.” When a child is struggling in school, the commander can require a parent-teacher conference to address the issue.
“[Our] new post commander really came out and said school education is number one—if you have a child conference, that is your place of duty for the day,” said Nicole McAllister, a first-grade teacher at Warner Barracks in Bamberg, Germany. “That really empowered the school to be an advocate for the children. The idea that we’re going to collaborate as an entire family is not feasible in civilian schools. I know exactly where the parent works, and I can reach out and touch that family.”
Class size is more regulated in DoDDS than in public schools. A new rule requires one teacher for every 18 kindergarten students.
“That was huge because when you’re dealing with them in that first year, you’re really able to touch each student and assess,” McAllister said.
Slimmer Minority Achievement Gaps
“It’s a mix of the culture, where our kids come from, and the way they learn,” said Steve Schrankel, the schools’ accountability chief. “It’s the curriculum and teachers of our students, [and] it’s the values that parents put behind any educational effort we try to bring forward. Our minority students contribute to this overall good picture.”
In contrast to many American school districts, the achievement gap between races is decreasing at DoDDS. In reading on NAEP, black fourth graders at military base schools scored 11 points below whites, a significant decrease from 2003’s gap of 16 points. Nationally, the gap is 26 points.
“With that parental involvement across all racial and ethnic groups, that could contribute to the smallness of that gap,” Goldstein said.
Though the divorce rate among military couples recently surpassed the national average, military children still reap the benefits of having at least one parent with a secure job and home and access to healthcare.
“Coming from New York, you have homeless children and families that are always moving around,” McAllister said. “If a child’s not eating, no matter how fantastic the school is, you’re not going to get anywhere. In the military, we’re kind of in a safety bubble.”
Reduced Federal Mandates
While many public schools factor standardized test preparation into the curriculum, military base schools vary on including it as a focus. Military base schools are not held to the same standards as public schools under No Child Left Behind, so they’re free from federal imposition of curriculum restructuring and improvement plans triggered by low scores on standardized tests.
“We have the TerraNova [standardized test], but it doesn’t go on their record, so the students don’t feel a lot of pressure and the teachers don’t feel a huge amount of pressure,” McAllister said. “All of our curriculum does come with test prep, but I don’t have to worry about the school not getting money if we don’t score so well or not getting accredited.”
An increase in virtual learning may also be contributing to DoDDS student success. In 2011 the department’s Educational Partnership awarded $8.7 million in Virtual Learning Grants.
Deployments and a rising divorce rate may be the main factors in the slowdown of some score improvement, according to McAllister, reinforcing the belief social forces may help drive or undermine achievement. Divorce rates rose steadily in military communities over the past five years but recently stabilized.
U.S. Army photo  of DoDEA students by Bob McElroy.