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America’s Most Equitable Scores Come From…

September 24, 2013 By Michael Diedrich, Education Fellow

...the Department of Defense Education Activity schools!

When I started digging into Minnesota's relative test score gap size, I wanted to pay attention to which jurisdictions had the most equitable results. Overall, there's one clear standout: the schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA).

(Note for interpreting the table below: The top number in each cell indicates the relative smallness of the state's test score gap; 1 being the smallest gap, 2 the second smallest, and so on. The bottom number in parentheses indicates the state's rank for scores from that population of color; 1 indicates a state has the highest scores for that population of color for that subject/grade combination, 2 indicates a state has the second highest, etc.)

(Data from NAEP)

When looking at gaps between white students and black or Hispanic students, the DoDEA is the only “state” to always be among the five smallest gaps, regardless of subject, grade level, or population of color. A small number of other states break the top five or top ten for one population of color or the other, but the DoDEA is the only one to do so across the board.

Of course, as we know from the “Gaps of the Day” series, relative gap size isn't enough as an indicator of equity. We also need to consider overall performance; a state which has small gaps because all students score poorly regardless of race isn't a model we want to spread. The DoDEA is the only state to always be in the top ten, and is often in the top five.

The obvious question is, “Why?”

DoDEA schools are the schools operated on-base for military personnel. This obviously means they're serving a different population than the country as a whole. Because of the entry requirements for the military, essentially all DoDEA students have at least one parent with a high school education or above. According to a 2001 report [PDF] (yes, a little out of date, but comprehensive in its analysis and reasonably accurate even today), “The majority of enlisted military parents in the DoDEA system earn a modest average salary...”

Obviously, then, we have some key demographic differences. We also have some major neighborhood, peer, and community differences. As the 2001 report notes, “Severe discipline problems such as use of drugs, alcohol, graffiti and violence are almost non-existent. The military does not tolerate these behaviors on post and families can have their housing privileges withdrawn.” Conditions like that, obviously, provide major benefits to students, families, and teachers.

Let's also note that reference to housing security; provided a family doesn't get its privileges withdrawn, housing is guaranteed. Combine that with income security (“You always know you are going to get your next paycheck,” according to a superintendent quoted in the report) and health care security, and you've removed some of the most significant stressors affecting families in poverty. Even when the incomes themselves aren't that good, as is often true for the majority of DoDEA families, most of the functional problems of poverty are not as significant on base.

There is one exception worth noting: transiency. Because of the nature of military deployments, most students move every few years. When the 2001 report was written, the typical length of time a student spent at any one school was three years. That makes it difficult to compare with poverty-based transiency.

Having established that there are significant family and lifestyle differences between students of color on DoDEA bases and those elsewhere in the country, let's look at the characteristics of the schools themselves. When the 2001 analysis was written – and I am not aware of any significant developments that would blunt its applicability today, though I welcome correction on that note – DoDEA schools made use of a well-regarded early childhood education program and after-school programs, had well-maintained and up-to-date facilities, paid its (unionized) teachers a competitive wage, and aggressively supported family involvement, to the point that parent-teacher conferences were considered the “place of duty” for personnel. The DoD also “provides additional staffing to enhance communication between military families and educators and to identify and remedy school-specific problems more effectively.”

DoDEA schools respond to strategic direction and measurement targets set centrally, but have significant local and classroom-level latitude for reaching those goals. Shutting down DoD schools over performance reasons is obviously not an option, and school improvement plans are a regular practice for every school. There is significant alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and teachers are reported to maintain high expectations for all students. There are School Advisory Committees (half parents, half professional employees) which can bring issues to District Advisory Councils, ensuring significant community ownership and involvement.

There are plenty of other details to this, but the short message is this: The most equitable scores in the U.S. come from well-funded, unionized, and performance-oriented schools in communities where a certain basic standard of income, housing, and health care access is guaranteed by the government. Surely progressives can find good lessons in that for education reform in the rest of the country.

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