The New York Times recently covered the extraordinary academic achievement of Department of Defense schools, noting several factors that contribute to their success. But one important contributor—common values—was not mentioned. Although military values are not easy to replicate in the civilian world, at a time of high discord and low grades, reformers would do well to study the Defense Department’s example for lessons they can adopt—more lessons than even the “newspaper of record” managed to report on.
What’s going on here?
The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) runs 160 schools, both domestic and overseas, attended by 66,000 students. That’s more than Boston’s or Seattle’s public schools.
DoDEA students are racially and economically diverse. But whether they are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, rich, or poor, they outperform their civilian counterparts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fourth grade. In eighth grade. And also, on their SATs and their ACTs, and in both Math, and English. They’ve been doing it for years. (And to its credit, the Times has been covering this for years, too.)
Their achievement gaps are smaller than we find in the civilian world. For example, DoDEA eighth graders whose parents only finished high school read at the same level as the children of civilians who earned college diplomas.
Harvard education professor Martin West tells the Times that reformers should be rushing to Camp Lejeune or Fort Campbell. They’re much closer than Finland, and everyone speaks English.
Why is DoDEA doing this better—especially after a pandemic and the resulting crash in achievement?
According to the Times, superior performance is explained by the usual suspects: greater funding, smaller class sizes, better healthcare, and stable housing. The factors that opponents of reform raise relentlessly to excuse districts schools’ poor performance.
To its credit, the Times does mention the socioeconomic integration of DoDEA schools. Even if they live in less fancy homes, the author notes, “children of junior soldiers attend classes alongside the children of lieutenant colonels. They play in the same sports leagues after school.” Academic studies have shown that low-income kids who attend schools in wealthier districts do better academically. And they don’t harm richer students’ performance.
The elementary school I founded in Brooklyn in 2013 was socioeconomically diverse. This attracted progressive families who might otherwise have been reticent to choose a charter. In a more recent, bold experiment in Athens, Ohio, a superintendent is making his schools more equitable by breaking up old zoning lines across an entire community.
But the Times missed the role of values in the DoDEA and its schools. The belief in hard work, self-discipline, and responsibility, both to one’s self and other group, are central to the military’s success. Not so long ago, education reformers, serving many students who came from chaotic social settings, believed in these values, too. For the Times and many of its readers, this is now anathema in the wake of police-use-of-force debates and health disparities laid bare by the pandemic. “Work hard, be nice,” is for suckers.
In founding the Common School movement, Horace Mann was explicit that one goal was to “inculcate nonsectarian Christian moral values and to educate every citizen to participate in a democracy.” Nowadays, elites articulate the idea that “individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck.” While they would never allow their children to act on this—they socialize this belief to the harm of many. On social and broadcast media, we see what my friend and former journalist Dan Perry calls “scorn for decency and moderation, as if true wisdom is a cynical acceptance of the laws of the jungle.”
The military is not perfect, but adhering to the values of hard work, responsibility, and discipline has not harmed the careers of the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both African American. The Chief of Naval Operations and Coast Guard Commandant are both women. Indeed, hard work pays off and success is generally meritocratic.
Polls show Americans distrust elected officials, business leaders, and journalists. But along with the military, Americans tell pollsters they believe school principals. My experience, and the polling data, suggest that families would accept their schools articulating clearly a commitment to personal responsibility and similar “military” values.
Of course, military families raise their children to be studious and obedient in ways the average family doesn’t. Superintendents can’t make parents pass the ASVAB to enroll their child in kindergarten. But by articulating and defending values that the majority of parents embrace, districts could build on the trust parents give them to replicate some of the conditions the DoDEA enjoys. By advocating respect for others and hard work, and articulating clearly how violations of these values will be handled, school leaders can strengthen their communities and improve student outcomes. That’s leadership.
Reformers could look at interventions the DoD makes available to non-military schools who request support. One example is Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a sixth though twelfth grade supplemental series lesson about how to study, read, write, and think like content experts, take focused notes, and manage time effectively. Research has shown AVID participants improved their behavior and cognitive regulation; in California, low-socioeconomic-status AVID participants enrolled in college at higher rates than the general population.
Alternatively, we could create new schools within the district framework that make their values commitments clear and allow parents to opt in. As the DoDEA shows, schools where parents share common beliefs are generally more successful. We see this in religious day schools and in charter schools like Great Hearts in the southwest and Success Academy in New York.
As with any complex challenge, improving outcomes for our neediest students will not arise from a single intervention. But one of the most successful school districts in the country has much to teach us, and reformers would do well to visit. Committing to socioeconomic integration and standing for a set of shared moral beliefs doesn’t have to cost much. But it could make a world of difference.