The school system that succeeds despite COVID-19
The school system that succeeds despite COVID-19

The school system that succeeds despite COVID-19

While the rest of the nation struggles to overcome pandemic learning losses and overcome the unrest in school districts everywhere, one very large school system succeeds, serving 70,000 students, despite great tumult.

While not a perfect analogy with the K-12 system, which is written large, the success of the network of schools responsible for teaching military-affiliated children could provide insight into mitigating huge educational disruptions.

The Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA, is a federally run school system that provides kindergarten education through Class 12 education to children of military service members and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. In 2021, DoDEA operated 160 schools in three regions – the Americas, Europe and the Pacific.

A government report, published earlier this year, examined how children in these schools fared through 2019 on the standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests compared to other U.S. students. It shows that military-affiliated students in DoDEA schools are excellent.

It is an astonishing achievement, especially considering that military-affiliated children live severely disturbed lives. They change schools every two to three years with a parent in active service. And with a parent who is sometimes posted and doing dangerous work, children experience stress that others do not, as they manage schoolwork, homework, and transition in and out of communities.

“Over the past decade, DoDEA students in fourth and eighth grade have generally received among the highest assessment scores nationwide in math and reading, according to our analysis of NAEP data,” the Government Accountability Office report found.

In the latest data examined by GAO for 2019, DoDEA’s average score for math and reading grades in fourth grade was higher than 98% and 100% of states, respectively. Similarly, the DoDEA’s average score for math and reading grades in the eighth grade was higher than 94% and 100% of the states, respectively.

GAO found high performance levels when broken down by racial lines and for students with disabilities or students who are English students.

It was not always so good for military-affiliated children. The GAO report notes that in 2011, DoDEA schools were closer to the bottom of the herd, with only 37% of states having lower scores on fourth-grade math.

DoDEA Director Tom Brady said a turning point came in 2016, when the school system began implementing college- and career-ready standards, starting with math. It also made a major investment in intensified teacher and leadership development, which has continued over the last nine years.

“Our commitment to student achievement and to teacher education and development combined for positive development in the classroom,” he said.

Jeffrey Noel, DoDEA’s head of educational research, added that some of the success can be attributed to an overriding philosophy governing the use of resources. DoDEA schools focus on curbing excessive bureaucracy – a major problem for many school districts – and instead prioritize efforts that can have the greatest impact on students.

Such an effort was a push for personal instruction. DoDEA schools switched to distance learning in early 2020 just like most other public school districts. But only months later, at the beginning of the school year in September 2020, DoDEA focused on personal learning with mitigation measures. By March 2021, 99% of DoDEA schools were operating in person, and it rose to 100% in the fall.

NAEP results are not available after 2019, so there is no perfect comparison with previous results and whether they held up during the tumultuous pandemic years. However, in the 2020-21 school year, when many school districts refused to administer tests, or tested only a small proportion of students on their traditional annual standardized assessments, DoDEA tested almost all students. That results indicates that students’ performance remained stable and consistent with pre-pandemic levels for most, and showed increases in scores for colored students.

Military-affiliated children attending DoDEA schools are not the typical elementary school cohort. They have parents with jobs, health care, food and housing; their schools are well-funded and do not have the same federally imposed requirements. They also operate in a unique system with a common culture and familiarity between students, parents, teachers, school faculty and base leaders.

But they do not have it easy either.

DoDEA schools succeed – and it deserves notice. Perhaps their approach to managing students with severely disrupted K-12 careers can provide insight into coping with something as detrimental to student learning as a pandemic.

Jim Cowen is the CEO of Collaborative for Student Success. He wrote this for

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