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The New York Times has a great article about one of the best school districts in the nation. It isn’t New York Public Schools or even those in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s about the schools run by the Department of Defense (DoD)1. About 66,000 children of service men and women attend these schools in the United States and around the globe on American military bases. If Department of Defense schools were a state, they would be the best at both math and reading in the country. As a Harvard Education professor says, “If the Department of Defense schools were a state, we would all be traveling there to figure out what’s going on”.
How well are they doing? Take a look at this useful chart from the New York Times article:
So what is going on? Two things stand out. First, DoD schools were doing better than almost every state in 2013 in math and reading. This could have a lot of reason behind it. Before teaching programs beat down the door of DoD schools trying to figure out the secret formula, everyone needs to acknowledge that the student population of DoD schools is far different than any other in America. First, by definition, every student in that school system has at least one employed parent (by the military). Not only is that parent employed but they succeeded in passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). The aptitude standards are not particularly high, but they will be a barrier for some individuals. Other schools don’t, and shouldn’t, be allowed to refuse enrollment to students whose parents are in the bottom 10 percent of the intelligence spectrum. The military, however, does have that ability and that is going to make their student population more intelligent than a societal cross-section.
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Students are also going to be studying alongside peers who are also the children of parents who passed the ASVAB. Students of privates are studying next to students of colonels. Assumedly some of the sense of duty and responsibility that most military members possess will trickle down to those children. So in some ways, it makes sense that the DoD has the best-performing schools.
On the other hand, DoD schools do have some distinct disadvantages as well. First, military families move around a lot. There are few students in any DoD classroom who have spent the last five years in the same school. DoD schools mitigate the harm this causes by running the same curriculum in every location, but it is still stressful for kids to move every two years. Second, although the military screens out the bottom of the intelligence distribution, I have a feeling on many bases the very top is also missing. There aren’t going to be the kids of many doctors or lawyers or structural engineers on a lot of bases.
Given the above, the composition effect of DoD schools is somewhat ambiguous. My gut tells me that the inherent order in the military and uniformity across schools should lead to a small inherent advantage that a city or state will never be able to replicate, but I say that with weak confidence. Regardless, the lack of replicability means it isn’t worth spending a ton of time analyzing.
Instead, the takeaway from the chart isn’t that DoD schools shouldn’t be that they have always performed well. It’s that from 2013 to 2023 reading scores improved significantly and math scores stayed level. This is far, far better than what happened in most states. Across the board school performance has decreased over the last ten years. Virtually no state has bucked the trend. Reading proficiency at DoD schools, however, increased from 45 to 55 percent. This is a massive shift. Education changes are usually incremental; half a point here, a quarter point there. Given the size of the district, this needs to be investigated.
My suspicion is this is yet another nail in the coffin of the reading wars. For decades now, it has been clear that learning to read is done best by teaching phonics. Despite this, numerous school districts have pursued “whole language” methods, where students are taught to guess the word by using context or even pictures on the page. DoD schools embraced the Common Core during this period, a much-maligned but tested method of education. The Common Core does not explicitly endorse phonics, but does focus on foundational concepts that include the key attributes of phonics. This appears to have paid off.
Finally, the push for in-person learning during Covid certainly had an impact. According to David Leonhardt, 85 percent of DoD schools were learning in person by December 2020. The DoD deserves major credit for this. In December of 2020, entire states had gone completely remote in their public schools. Several states were at least 90 percent remote during this time, meaning only those in private schools were attending in person. Given that government organizations were often the most Covid cautious, with entire federal agencies basically shutting down for an entire year, it is remarkable that DoD schools decided to resume in-person instruction so quickly.
So yes, educators should be asking what DoD schools are doing. But they shouldn’t have to dig very deep to find out.
The New York Times insist on calling the Department of Defense “the Defense Department” throughout. Is this a change in their style guidelines? It sounds weird to me. It’s the DoD!