Military children outperform public school students

Children wait patiently in the school hallways for the rest of their classmates to arrive before they start the first day of school at Clarke Elementary School, Fort Hood, Texas, Aug. 24, 2015. Some of the teachers wanted all their students present before they brought them in to get settled in the classrooms. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Folkerth)

At Jacksonville (NC) High school, 35 percent of the students test as proficient in math. Twenty-five minutes away, at the U.S. Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, students at the base high school test at 72 percent proficiency - twice the rate as the nearby public high school.

The Camp Lejeune school is only one example from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school system. The national average for proficiency is 50 percent yet DoDEA schools are performing much higher in reading, math, and science. 70.3 percent are proficient in reading, 65.5 percent in math, and 74 percent in science.

What's going on here? It's been a well-kept secret that there's an American education system that performs better than the public school system. The DoDEA schools are the model the public school system should and could have been following. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math, science, and reading scale scores are proof of that for fourth and eighth grade students.

DoDEA students do it better

In 2015, both grades scored 13 points higher than public school students in reading and science. For math, the fourth graders scored eight points higher while the eighth graders scored 10 points higher. The trend in DoDEA students outperforming public school students on NAEP assessments traces back to 2005.

Emily Richmond, public editor for the National Education Writers Association, attributes DoDEA's smaller achievement gap between minority and/or poor students and the rest and overall better performance to:

    • housing
    • frequent meals
    • small class sizes
    • compulsory parent involvement
    • teachers that have more advanced degrees

Why public school students don't perform as well as DoDEA students

There are no public laws in place that compel:

    • parental involvement
    • teachers to have more advanced and effective degrees
    • schools to contact parents when students are failing one class
    • schools consulting with parents
    • schools to ensure the closing of the academic gap.

There is no need for those type of laws in the DoDEA because it happens naturally within the military community.

In the civilian world, that closeness on military installations isn't shared between schools, the parents, and the parents' job. Empirical evidence shows public parents have to leave work, some of whom can't afford to, to attend parent-teacher meetings or other school events. It is from our parents we learn what is important or not - they are our primary teachers before entering the school system. If parents deem it unimportant (from disinterest and not economic realities) to attend school events and meetings, their children will notice and are likely to reflect a similar attitude. A. B. Brownell's study on the "Determinants and consequences of parental involvement in education" highlights the positive relationship between schools and the parents, parents and the students, and students and their academic performance. More often than not, schools contacting parents leads to them playing a more active role in their child's education.

"In 2011-12, for example, (only) 45 percent of children living above the poverty line had a parent who volunteered or served on a committee at their child's school, compared with 27 percent of children living at or below the poverty line," according to Child Trends' "Parental Involvement in Schools". The disconnect between teachers, schools and parents in the public realm is accountability regulations. Schools aren't governmentally required to contact parents if their student is failing one class, they must be failing two or more. History repeats itself so if the parents' parents weren't involved or required to be, why would they be for their child? Unless the significance of parent involvement is made aware, they won't be.

But, it's more than just the schools reaching out and parents being involved.

Another major concern is addressing the disparity between white/affluent and minority/poor students. Academic gaps between these two groups are likely to continue to widen if there is no accountability on states and schools.

Those gaps aren't as big an issue in DoDEA schools. For example: Clarksville (TN) High School hopes to reach a 10.1 percent gap between their white and minority students instead of the 15.3 percent gap they have had. Compare that to Fort Campbell High School on Army base Fort Campbell which had only an 8 percent gap average. Accountability measures are to ensure gaps are as small as possible but teachers are the means to close them yet there's nothing ensuring teachers are receiving the best and most effective education in their preparation programs.

Barbara Nye, Spyros Konstantopoulos and Larry V. Hedges conducted a four-year experiment to determine how effective teachers are for student learning. Their "How Large Are Teacher Effects?" sheds light on a teacher's reach, especially in low socioeconomic status schools more evident in areas of minorities. A highly effective teacher has a more substantial effect on minority and/or poor students than white and/or affluent students.

Tennessee's Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) and Student Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) project prove that "the effect of teaching on student learning is greater than student ethnicity or family income, school attended by student, or class size," as said by the Center for Public Education (CPE). While home life has an effect on student learning, teachers play the larger role. If you've seen the movie "Freedom Writers", the story of Erin Gruwell, then you understand the accuracy of this. William L. Sanders and June C. Rivers' "Cumulative and Residual Effects Of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement" stated, "As teacher effectiveness increases, lower achieving students are the first to benefit."

CPE's "Teacher quality and student achievement: Research review" determined the qualities of an effective teacher are:

    • content knowledge
    • teaching experience
    • training and credentials
    • overall academic ability.

It's difficult to learn from anyone who doesn't know what they're teaching and like any job, performance improves with time. A teacher's academic skills must be strong since they're the ones who teach and hone these skills in students. Teacher preparation programs should be well rounded and "accredited by a specialized accrediting agency approved by the Secretary of Education for the accreditation of professional teacher education programs," as the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education said in their "Overview of the Final Rule for Teacher Preparation Program Regulations Released by the U.S. Department of Education." While there is a debate on the balance of content knowledge and knowledge of teaching, it is undeniable that a lack of teacher training will result in more students failing to meet their state determined proficiency bar.

Some may say the need for better programs is irrelevant since 56 percent of public school K-12 teachers have a master's degree or higher but it should be asked, 'where are those teachers teaching?' Those experienced teachers are often found missing from at-risk schools. It may be a choice by the teachers themselves, a question of seniority, union rules, or assignment by a superintendent, but consider this: consistently moving talented teachers away from at-risk schools and poor areas will only make the situation worse.

Why public school students probably won't perform as well as DoDEA students

In order to understand why public school students will probably never perform as well as DoDEA students, you have to understand the history of public education law.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965. Its goal was to provide every child an equal opportunity to receive an exceptional education. ESEA authorized funding for primary and secondary education and state-run programs that help struggling, disabled or impoverished students. It was passed as part of former president Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" and was reauthorized every five years until it's first reform.

Improving America's Schools Act was the first revision of ESEA. Former president Bill Clinton passed the law in 1994 with revisions on holding schools equally accountable for disadvantaged students, charter schools, education technology and more. Despite the revisions, IASA wasn't enough, hence the passing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The No Child Left Behind Act is ESEA's third form. It was created and passed under former president George W. Bush's administration in 2002. Unlike ESEA, NCLB's creation came from concern that our education system wasn't competitive enough internationally. It forced states and schools to be accountable for their students performance, as they should've been. NCLB's failure to a large measure is linked to its overuse of standardized testing and negative consequences to states refusing to follow its regulations or failing to meet expectations. NCLB enticed teachers to copy the attitude of students: if it's not on the test, it's not important.

In 2010, 38 percent of public schools were failing - nine percent more than there were in 2006. Years after No Child Left Behind was passed, educators nationwide demanded a change which resulted in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA was passed by the Obama administration on December 10, 2015. Essentially, ESSA is a civil rights law descending from ESEA, which ensures all people are provided an equal opportunity to get an education of good quality. ESSA's regulations, along with Common Core State Standards, were to ensure that education is of high quality and a solid foundation for future success. The accountability regulation forced states to be accountable for their schools' performance while the teacher preparation regulation was to ensure teacher preparation programs produce highly effective teachers.

It's important to note the DoDEA is not subject to the Department of Education laws and regulations. DoDEA is directly under the Department of Defense (DoD). Regardless, DoDEA would have welcomed the changes following ESSA and its regulations. Chuck McCarter, President of the Federal Education Association (FEA) wrote, "ESSA brings a reemphasis on local control of education, de-coupling standardized tests from high-stakes decisions about schools, and hopefully giving educators nationwide a stronger voice in the policymaking process -- all of which would be welcome changes in DoDEA."

On March 27, 2017, the ESSA accountability and teacher preparation regulations were repealed – even when 80 percent of the lawmakers agreed they were good, according to Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT). It was a triumph of those wanting less federal control no matter what the ripple effects.

Is there a chance public school students will perform as well as DoDEA students?

The repeal of the accountability and teacher preparation regulations – and the lack of any replacement plan - is disheartening and disappointing to many.. Minimal federal oversight is what GOP legislators want but it leaves states in an uncertain position. There will be no protection of good quality education for students who:

  • are of low socioeconomic status
  • are minorities
  • have disabilities.

Not all states agree on standards that ensure "students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two-or four-year college programs or enter the workforce," as said in the overview on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website,

Constantly switching schools, something children of servicemembers are used to, can result in a shaky academic foundation. This realization enticed the DoDEA to create standards that mirror the Common Core State Standards. According to Emily Richmond, public editor for the National Education Writers Association, DoDEA's College and Career Ready Standards are basically the Common Core State Standards that have been "rebranded to avoid the political swampland that has embroiled the initiative in controversy elsewhere in the nation."

State education chiefs and governors from 48 states developed these standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for K-12 students so they are college and career ready upon graduation. Yet only 42 states (plus four U.S. territories and the District of Columbia) have adopted them? The inconsistency between non-governmental and governmental officials is why regulations are needed, specifically the ones being repealed. A student can graduate from Texas and have an entirely different comprehension of college and/or workforce essential knowledge than a student from Virginia, South Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Puerto Rico. (Those are the eight areas that have not adopted the Common Core standards; Indiana has only adopted the English language arts standards.

Failing to replace the regulations now leaves students at the mercy of states to make their educational system accountable. But only a single, national system can guarantee a level of accountability and consistency across state lines. DoDEA provides the umbrella for military base schools that the repeal of regulations has done away with for public schools.

Want your kindergartener to be taught about sex? Move to Chicago. Don't want the Bible to be taught in your public school? Move to Texas. Want to give your child a good, balanced education in order to compete well in this world? Enlist in the military.


CPE - Center for Public Education. Resource for credible information regarding public education.

DoDEA - Department of Defense Education Activity. A school system created for children of military servicemembers.

ESEA - Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Authorized the funding of primary and secondary education. Passed in 1965.

ESSA - Every Student Succeeds Act. Law to ensure all people the opportunity to a good quality education. Passed December 10, 2015.

FEA - Federal Education Association, the federal branch of the National Education Association. Advocate for educators' right and for quality education.

GOP - "Grand Old Party", nickname for the Republican party.

IASA - Improving America's Schools Act. The second form of ESEA with emphasis on school accountability for disadvantaged students passed in 1994.

NAEP - National Assessment of Educational Progress. Provides assessments nationally in math, reading, science, writing, and more. It is compiled by the Institute of Education Sciences an independent arm of the U.S. Department of Education that provides statistics, research, and evaluation.

NCLB - The third form of ESEA. Highly focused on standardized testing and negative consequences, e.g. firing teachers and education officials. Passed in 2002.

STAR - A study by the state of Tennessee analyzing student achievement and growth in different types of classrooms.

TVAAS - Tennessee's Value Added Assessment System. Measures teacher and school impacts on student academic progress, not academic proficiency.

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