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What Lessons Do Military Base Schools Offer?

It's tempting to conclude that the success of schools on military bases in narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students has relevance to public schools. At least that's what reformers will likely maintain after reading Michael Winerip's informative column ("Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students," The New York Times, Dec. 12).

After all, it's hard not to be impressed by the latest results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In reading, for example, there was an 11-point gap between black and white fourth graders at the military base schools. This compares with a 26-point gap between the two racial groups in public schools. Even more impressive was that black fourth graders at the military base schools scored higher in reading than public school students as a whole.

Yet there are several factors that militate against extrapolation. First, the standardized tests that are mandated by No Child Left Behind are not used at military base schools for the same purpose. Instead of judging the effectiveness of teachers, the tests are used strictly for diagnostic purposes. Second, the average class for kindergarten through third grade there has 18 students. This compares with 24 students in New York City. Third, military parents are provided health care for their children and housing. The availability means that students do not attend classes with ailments afflicting many of their counterparts in public schools. Finally, the military puts a premium on education, providing parents with time off from work to participate in their children's schools.

None of these factors applies to public schools. As a result, they'll never be able to match the success of schools on military bases. Moreover, the military is not a democracy. Its culture allows it to implement changes rapidly and efficiently. For example, when racial integration became the law of the land in the 1950s, the military achieved the goal without the controversy and turmoil that characterized civilian society. It is a color-blind culture.

It's always worthwhile examining schools anywhere that are effective in order to see what can be learned. But as the same time, it's important to bear in mind the unique circumstances that account for their reputation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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