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Department of Defense Schools Shine

One of the least known educational success stories can be found in the 180 Department of Defense schools scattered around the globe ("Peripatetic Students Thrive At Department Of Defense Schools," NPR, Jan. 1).  Serving about 82,000 children, most of whose parents are on active duty, they report directly to the Pentagon, rather than to the Department of Education.

Although approximately a third of military children move every year and 45 percent of all military children are low-income, they tend to do better on average than their counterparts in public schools on standardized reading and math tests for 4th and 8th graders.  Moreover, the achievement gap between white and black students is significantly lower than the national rate.

The question is why DOD schools are able to post these laudable results.  I maintain that the most important reason is that teachers have complete support from parents.  At Quantico Middle/High School in Virginia, where the average daily attendance rate is an impressive 94 percent, discipline issues are virtually nonexistent.  That's because parents can get into trouble if their children misbehave.  As a result, any contact with parents gets their immediate and total attention.  In short, there is parental accountability.

That's the antithesis of the situation in traditional public schools. Often, it's impossible for teachers to get parents to respond to their phone messages and certified letters.  When they do, parents typically take the side of their children despite documented evidence of misbehavior. I remember spending countless hours trying to arrange parent conferences with students who were failing my class.  Even when I was finally successful in contacting them, I found little, if any, follow through on their part.

DOD schools also get full personnel support.  At Irwin Intermediate School in Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where 20 percent of students are in special education, there are two full-time counselors, a full-time nurse, a speech therapist, and an occupational therapist. In traditional public schools nationwide, there are 478 students for ever one counselor. One in five high schools has no counselors at all.

Further, DOD schools have the same curriculum, textbooks and graduation requirements, making it easier for children whose parents periodically relocate.  This eliminates the time it takes for children to readjust to ongoing instruction and takes a load off teachers who would otherwise have to provide supplemental lessons. (Next year, all DOD schools will implement the Common Core standards.)

When students in traditional public schools move from state to state, they find themselves confronting material that they have already learned or that is too difficult.  As more and more families from other states moved into the Los Angeles Unified School District area when I was teaching, I quickly found out that course titles meant very little in terms of what they had been taught. That meant preparing extra lessons to bring them up to speed or challenging them.

Perhaps because of these factors, teacher turnover is extremely low at DOD schools.  At Irwin Intermediate, only one of the 50 teachers is new. Although their salaries are better than those at nearby public schools, I think the more likely explanation is that DOD schools provide an ideal environment in which to teach. Therefore, teacher morale is extremely high. Compare that with the morale of teachers in most traditional public schools, where almost half of new teachers quit after the first five years.

I've long believed that if parents whose children are in traditional public schools were more supportive and less faultfinding, teachers would not feel beaten down. Instead, traditional public schools are seen as the schools of last resort, with teachers scapegoated for every conceivable problem.  It's enough to make you wonder why more teachers don't apply to DOD schools.

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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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