Why Military Kids Do So Well in School

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Here's a school system with demographics that would seem to spell trouble. Forty percent of the students are minorities. Half are poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Thirty-five percent change schools during a typical year. About three-fourths of the parents have a high school education or less. The homes have higher than average rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse and violence.

But their test scores are among the highest in the nation. The school system I'm describing, with 227 elementary and secondary schools, is the one operated by the Department of Defense for 112,000 children of military personnel stationed in the United States and abroad.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally mandated test also known as "The National Report Card" and described as "the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas." It ranks students based on scores as below basic, basic (partially proficient), grade level (proficient) or advanced.

The majority of U.S. students are ranked at basic or below. The DOD schools had a higher percentage of students scoring in the NAEP advanced bracket than any state. In eighth-grade writing, for example, only Connecticut outperformed DOD schools in 1998.

African American and Hispanic students in the system do well, too, scoring either first or second in the nation in eighth-grade reading and writing.

Public schools can't do much to match a few advantages that the DOD schools have - for example, single-parent households account for only 6.2% of military families compared with a national rate of 27%, and there is a strong sense of community among military families. But a research team from Vanderbilt University found that most of the factors contributing to success in the military-run schools could be duplicated by other school systems.

Claire Smrekar, the team's lead researcher, told Education Week, "We think you can separate some of these good educational leadership practices and embrace them and utilize them to promote higher achievement in public schools...."

After a year spent studying the schools run by the military, the research team concluded that much of the success can be explained by the way the schools are run and the fact that teachers hold unusually high expectations for the students.

Top management establishes clear directions, goals, and targets, but it doesn't dictate how to achieve them. Principals and teachers know what they are expected to accomplish and are held responsible for achieving those goals. "High expectations are the norm," says the team's report. "[This is] reflected in high standards, teachers' sense of personal accountability, and very limited use of tracking."

In a 1998 survey, 81% of the DOD students, including 85% of African Americans and 93% of Hispanics, said that the expectations of their teachers were "very positive," the highest ranking. This compared to 58% in the public schools, including 52% of African Americans and 53% of Hispanics.

Why do minority students do better in the schools run by the military? "I think the answer to that question is that all our students do better. There are no 'minority' students here," a teacher told the Vanderbilt research team.

What else accounts for the success of the schools? Every student regularly takes a standardized test, the results of which are used to make sure that what is being taught and how it is being taught meet student needs. Most schools have small enrollments, so teachers are more familiar with their students and the students' learning needs.

The teachers are well-trained and well-paid. In 1999, the schools spent about $8,900 per student - higher than the national average, but no more than some large U.S. school systems with comparable or higher proportions of minority students spend.

But the teachers' high expectations of the students seems to be the key. That, and the determination of managers to help the teachers help the students meet those expectations. There's no reason other school systems in the nation can't accomplish the same results with the same approach.