Department of Defense Schools’ Success Can Be Copied Stateside

Aspiring American expats who are professional educators should consider working with the Department of Defense Schools for the dependents of parents who have enlisted in the US military. It’s the 10th largest US school system, with about 120 schools around the world, in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America.


The article below describes what it’s like to work in such schools and why they have such high success. It was written by Mary Ann Clark, PhD, a professor of education at the University of Florida, was originally published in the Gainesville Sun in 2004. It is reprinted with permission.

Schools overseas for the dependents of Department of Defense employees and Americans abroad create high expectations and academic achievement for their students.

Having worked with students and their families in schools on US military bases overseas for a number of years, I would like to make some observations about what contributes to the educational success story of this population.

The DOD school system received much attention in 2000 when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, also known as “the Nation’s Report Card” were released showing that DOD students scored at or near the top of the charts in reading and math each year. when compared with stateside school counterparts in both grades 4 and 8.

In my experience, the factors that attribute to such successes are family support, small learning communities, teacher recruitment, professionalism, and the increased multi-cultural awareness the students develop living overseas, and finally, the collaborative relationship that exist between these schools and the military community.

Though rank is a big issue with regard to socioeconomic status in the military, it is a fact that every service member has a job, a place to live, and health care for themselves and their families.

However, about 40 percent of these students qualify for free/reduced price school lunches, an indicator often used when discussing socioeconomic status and school achievement. And these DOD students score well above the national average on the NAEP as compared to stateside peers who are eligible for free/reduced price school lunches.

Whereas there is a teacher shortage in many parts of the United States, there is much competition for DOD educator positions.

These career educators have salary and benefit packages that serve as an incentive to stay in the system, giving continuity to schools that have a high rate of turnover of students due to the military changes of station that occur frequently.

The educators also serve as coaches, club sponsors and advisors to organizations and receive a stipend for these extracurricular contributions.

Art and literary festivals, as well as Model United Nations, bring secondary students from a number of countries together to share and celebrate their work. Such intense participation by both students and staff creates a strong sense of community within the schools, adding to the richness of the overseas experience.

The discipline of the military, along with smaller schools, result in a tighter “safety net” for students, particularly those who may have learning, behavioral or physical problems that can impede their academic progress. Schools take action in collaboration with military community agencies to provide needed services.

I was always impressed with the number of family members who participated in school events and meetings, and were available during school hours for teacher conferences.

The military encourages families to be involved in their children’s education, and indeed, gives active-duty members released time from their work to do so. Common sense and research tell us that parents who are involved in their children’s education have higher achieving children.

A final point to be made is that DOD students seem to accept one another’s differences. They discover from their life experiences that the United States in general, and their hometowns specifically, are not the center of the universe.

There are a number of multicultural marriages that take place in the military resulting in in mixed-race children. I remember one kindergarten child spontaneously telling me during a screening for English as a second language, “My father’s black, my mother is Thai, and I am peach!”

Although we cannot totally replicate the DOD school model in U.S. public schools, we can examine some of their practices. What lessons can we stateside educators, legislators and communities learn from the Department of Defense Schools?

Recruiting, compensating and retaining excellent teachers is essential.

Providing needed resources with regard to materials, physical plants, and staff development is crucial to maintaining and promoting quality education. Collaboration between the schools and the community provides a vital support system to students and their families.

Smaller school communities, extracurricular activities and teams available to all create a feeling of togetherness for the students and staffs.

The acceptance and embracing of cultural differences contributes to a healthy atmosphere for learning and a feeling that the school is a safe place to be.

Allowing parents time off from work to attend school meetings and conferences supports family involvement in the school.

Military families who live overseas endure many hardships and periods of separation, remote assignments, adaptation to cultural differences while missing the familiarity of a stateside existence, continual moves and changes in their lives, and dangers of war, to name a few.

They deserve an excellent school system that provides not only education, but a safe haven that meets the security, cultural and recreational needs for their children in the midst of many uncertainties in their lives.

My hope is that we can provide some of these principles that work to our stateside school systems.

Mary Ann Cark is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Florida. She was a school counselor and administrator in the Department of Defense Dependent Schools system for 13 years.

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