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Department of Defense Schools: Their Secret Weapons for Success

One of the most successful school systems in the U.S. is not in an exclusive suburb in a wealthy state. Instead, it is scattered across the country and the world on U.S. military bases. Strategic planning, a conviction that all children can learn, and community support are among the reasons for the systems success. Included: Tips for improving school systems from the Department of Defense Education Activity.

A school system with a 35 percent annual student mobility rate, with half of its students living at the poverty line, with most of their parents having only a high school education -- with National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores among the highest in the U.S.? It sounds more like an ambitious goal than an actual district profile.

But such a system does exist; only it exists where few people think to look for it -- in the United States military.

For years, teachers and administrators at schools on military bases in the U.S. and abroad have been quietly producing impressive results with a diverse, highly transient student population.

I was very surprised [about the performance levels] -- I think we all were, said Debra E. Owens, a research associate with Vanderbilt University who participated in a study of the system. I just had never heard any level of detail about their school system being exceptional. It wasnt our expectation that they were doing so well in so many areas.


A compilation of factors at the schools overseen by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), a civilian agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, helps students achieve. But the key ingredient cited by people both inside and outside the system is high expectations for all students.

"There is an ingrained attitude that all students can learn," said Owens of her experience with the schools.

Crystal Hoel, a former middle school language arts teacher at a school in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said, I think public schools can implement the same strategies, but only if the principal and/or curriculum director truly believe that all kids can achieve and teachers are held accountable. The entire faculty has to be on board, and it becomes an administrators responsibility to see that they are.

Owens and members of a research team from the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt prepared the report, March Toward Excellence: School Success and Minority Student Achievement in Department of Defense Schools in 2001 for the National Education Goals Panel (NEGP). The researchers focused on middle schools, visiting all DoDEA schools in the United States and all but one DoDEA school system abroad.

The DoDEA system serves about 106,000 students at 224 schools in 14 countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico and employs about 8,800 teachers. Within DoDEA, the Department of Defense Domestic Dependents Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS) oversees school in the U.S. and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) monitors those abroad.

Minority students comprise 40 percent of the systems population (approximately the same ratio as the New York State public schools) and 50 percent of all students receive free or reduced-priced meals. Approximately 10 percent are special education students. Eighty percent of the students are children of enlisted personnel; 94 percent of those parents have only a high school diploma.

Because of changing military assignments, the maximum amount of time most children spend in one school is three years; the annual mobility rate is 35 percent.

Yet, the schools have a 97 percent high school graduation rate, and the majority of students go on to higher education.


Despite obstacles to their education, DoDEA students achieved high scores on the NAEP. Among African-American and Hispanic students, those attending DoDEA schools in the past have posted the highest scores in the nation.

On the 1998 writing test, DoDDS eighth graders placed second in the United States. African-American eighth graders in DoDDS schools scored second in the nation when compared with their peers in non-military schools; Hispanics placed first among Hispanic students nationwide. African-American fourth and eighth graders also placed first on the reading exam, as did Hispanic fourth graders; Hispanic eighth graders ranked second.

The achievement gap between white and minority students also is narrower in DoDEA schools than in U.S. public schools.

In fact, the NEGP originally commissioned the report to unearth the reasons behind the success of DoDEA minority students. Then, when we analyzed the test scores, we were surprised, not only at how well minority students were doing, but at how well white students were doing, too, Owens said. They all were doing well.


DoDEA officials naturally are pleased with positive attention (including a segment on the news magazine 60 Minutes), but focus more on improving quality, rather than past accomplishments, according to DoDEA spokeswoman Patricia Lambe.

We are very pleased, but not complacent, Lambe told Education World. There is no silver bullet for success; its really a constellation of factors.

Besides high expectations for student achievement, Lambe said small classes, providing all schools with the same amount of resources, and solid community support also contribute to a high level of student learning. There is a universal acceptance in the population we serve that education is important. Parents are not just welcomed, but encouraged to participate. Base commanders sometimes allow parents to leave work to attend parent conferences or events at school, she said.

Because of the values most students bring to school, there are few discipline problems, Lambe added.

Also key for continued success is a long-term strategic plan for the system, which includes goals for more rigorous content and improved student performance. Each school also has an improvement plan, which ties in with the goals of the strategic plan. Teachers teach to the standards, and they know what the standards are, said Lambe.

The high student mobility rate forced DoDEA administrators to institute within the system a uniform curriculum and standards-based instruction, so teachers know what material students have covered when they arrive.

Hoel, the former DoDEA language arts teacher, said students coming and going during the year was just something we dealt with. As kids joined our team, they were given a welcome packet, which contained the same things all kids received at the beginning of the year. These included our team rules, homework policy, and expectations for each class. Instruction frequently would have to be modified if a new student came in the middle of a major unit. But that was not difficult, since we regularly modified much of our instruction for special needs students.

Why DoDEA Schools Work

March Toward Excellence: School Success and Minority Student Achievement in Department of Defense Schools names several in-school and out-school factors that contribute to the success of Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools. The authors identify important policy implications for state and local policymakers, according to the reports executive summary. Among those factors:
* Centralized direction setting with local decision-making.
* Policy coherence and regular data flow regarding instructional goals, assessments, accountability, and professional training and development.
* Sufficient financial resources linked to instructionally relevant strategic goals.
* Staff development that is job-embedded, intensive, sustained over time, relevant to school improvement goals and linked to student performance.
* Small school size, which is conducive to trust, communication, and a sense of community.
* Academic focus and high expectations for all students.
* Continuity of care for children in high quality pre-schools and after-school programs.
* A commitment to public education that is material and symbolic and that is visible and responsive to parents within the school community.



To ensure that students are keeping up with the material, DoDEA schools administer more tests than any other school system in the U.S., in third through 11th grades, Lambe said. The [instructional] decisions all are data-driven, but we want the teachers to be creative. People suspect the schools are very militaristic, but actually teachers have a lot of freedom.

They are creating more criterion-reference tests that measure more what students do in the classroom, added Owens. A writing test is a culmination of instruction; it is viewed as one measure of achievement, not the only measure. They are trying to get all students up to the highest level. They also give some achievement tests.


Teachers also were happy working in the DoDEA schools, citing high pay, ample instructional supplies, plentiful professional development, and few student behavior problems, Owens said.

In talking to teachers, they are very encouraged and appreciative of the high-level of training they receive and continue to receive, she said. There are many, many opportunities for professional growth, and they have all the [classroom] resources they need. They are treated like professionals by administrators, parents, and the military.

They like to teach their subject areas, and feel in this system they can teach it, not just be disciplinarians.


Ironically, at a time when the system was winning praise, DoDEA officials planned to hire a consultant to spend 18 months studying the costs to maintain each U.S. school in each community, and the estimated cost of having a local education agency take over a school. The overseas schools were not part of the study, because they are the only schools available to families living on military bases abroad.

The study was said not to be an indication that any schools would close, or be turned over to local education agencies, Lambe said. This [data] is a piece missing in the fiscal picture.

Owens said she hoped the DoDEA system remained intact. I do think it would be unfortunate to disable a successful school system, when so many are not successful.

Can DoDEA Strategies Work in Public Schools?

Can some or all of the successful strategies of Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools be implemented in public schools? Yes, if staff members and the community are willing to commit to the effort, say educators familiar with the DoDEA system.

There are some lessons to be learned, even with differences between DoDEA schools and the public school system, said Debra E. Owens of Vanderbilt University, one of the researchers for the study March Toward Excellence: School Success and Minority Student Achievement in Department of Defense Schools.

Among the recommendations for public school districts:
* Develop long-term goals and a strategic planning policy; while many public school districts have two- or three-year plans, DoDEA has five-year plans. Establish targets for student achievement and ensure that everyone knows what they are. In my opinion, public school districts had better find a target and stick with it, Owens said. Its hard to achieve a goal if you keep changing it. You need a plan with which parents, teachers, and school staff agree.
* Involve parents in the schools and hold them accountable for their childrens learning. One generalization I can make is that DoDEA schools see parents as partners, whereas many public schools view parents as the enemy and dread phone calls or conferences, according to Crystal Hoel, a former DoDEA teacher who now teaches in the public schools.
* Follow DoDEA lead in standardizing methods of helping transfer students adjust to their new schools. With a mobility rate in DoDEA schools of 35 percent, administrators needed a system to process students quickly. They have automatic mechanisms to accommodate kids coming and going, Owens said. Those in the transition system register students, help them feel welcome, assess their progress, and determine what support services they need. It does involve some flexibility on the part of the teachers, added Owens. But the teachers have learned to value the time they have with the students.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio