Who has the top performing school district in the nation? The United States Department of Defense.
The U.S. Department of Defense operates 160 schools worldwide, offering an education for more than 69,000 children of active-duty military and Department of Defense civilian families.
In 2022, scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, show Defense Department schools outperformed schools in all 50 states in reading and math for fourth and eighth-grade students. However, they outpace the rest of the country in many areas.
A closer look at the rankings
According to the New York Times, “Their schools had the highest outcomes in the country for Black and Hispanic students, whose eighth-grade reading scores outpaced national averages for white students.
Eighth graders whose parents only graduated from high school — suggesting lower family incomes, on average — performed as well in reading as students nationally whose parents were college graduates.”
These schools re-opened relatively quickly during the pandemic but their results are not limited to pandemic learning losses in other states.
“While the achievement of U.S. students overall has stagnated over the last decade, the military’s schools have made gains on the national test since 2013. And even as the country’s lowest-performing students — in the bottom 25th percentile — have slipped further behind, the Defense Department’s lowest-performing students have improved in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.”
Black and Hispanic students still lag behind their white peers but not at the rates of other states. The Achievement Gap has narrowed in DoD schools.
How do they do it?
An analysis by We Are Teachers outlines six main things Department of Defense schools do differently.
- Families have access to housing and healthcare. The military provides housing and healthcare and at least one family member has full-time job even though a third of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Students’ basic needs have been met before they walk through the school doors.
- Teachers are paid more. The Pentagon estimates they spend about $25,000 per pupil, far above many states and in line with the highest performing states. From the New York Times, “Competitive salaries- scaled to education and experience levels- help retain teachers at a time when many are leaving the profession.
- Schools are fully funded. In addition to teacher salaries, the Department of Defense school budget provides necessary supplies that other school districts rely on teachers and families to provide.
- Schools are more integrated. Defense Department schools are 42 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black, 6 percent Asian, and 15 percent multiracial. From the TImes, “Nationally, school-district boundaries are often drawn along lines of class and race, creating stark divides in resources. In 2021, nearly 40 percent of Black and Hispanic public school students attended a high-poverty school — a rate three to five times that of Asian and white students.”
- Schools have a strong, central structure. “Logistical planning, including a predictable budget, “isn’t very sexy,” but it is one key to success, said Thomas M. Brady, the director of Defense Department schools since 2014.” Since the administration of the schools comes from a central command, the education is less political.
- Schools have a common curriculum. Recently, the DoD revamped its curriculum similar to the ill-fated Common Core effort. From We Are Teachers, “…They rolled it out in carefully organized stages over several years, including teacher training and global coordination to ensure every school is aligned. That way, if a parent of kindergarteners…. in Fort Knox is reassigned to a post in Belgium, the child(ren) will pick right back up on their learning at Brussels American School.” They acknowledged that the loss of teacher autonomy in the classroom might be considered a drawback but noted that teachers receive “detailed feedback and support from administrators and coaches, plus dedicated time” to plan lessons with their team.
The New York Times article notes that the overall goal of the Department of Defense’s school system is to raise the floor for all students instead of lowering the bar. “If the Department of Defense schools were a state, we would all be traveling there to figure out what’s going on,” said Martin West, an education professor at Harvard who serves on the national exam’s governing board.”