Amy Dilmar, a high school principal in Georgia, is well aware of the numerous crises threatening American education. The lost learnings that accumulated during the coronavirus pandemic. The huge inequalities by race and family income have only gotten worse. A widening achievement gap between the highest and lowest achieving students.
But he sees little of that at his school in Fort Moore, Georgia.
Students who solve algebra equations and perfect essays at Faith Middle School attend one of the highest-performing school systems in the country.
It is not run by a local school board or a network of charter schools, but by the Department of Defense.
With about 66,000 students (more than the enrollment of public schools in Boston or Seattle), Pentagon schools for children of military members and civilian employees are quietly achieving results that most educators can only dream of.
Their schools had the highest results in the country for black and Hispanic students, whose eighth-grade reading scores surpassed the national averages for white students.
Eighth graders whose parents only graduated from high school (suggesting lower family incomes, on average) performed as well in reading as students nationally whose parents were college graduates.
Schools reopened relatively quickly during the pandemic, but last year’s results were no fluke.
While American student achievement overall has stagnated over the past decade, military schools have made gains on national tests since 2013. And even as the country’s lowest-performing students (in the bottom 25th percentile) have Left even further behind, the Department of Defense’s lowest-performing students have improved in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.
“If the Department of Defense schools were a state, we would all travel there to find out what’s going on,” said Martin West, an education professor at Harvard who serves on the national exam’s board of directors.
Schools are not free of problems.
Despite their high achievement, black and Hispanic students, on average, still lag behind their white peers in Department of Defense schools, although the gap is smaller than in many states. The Pentagon has also faced scrutiny for its handling student misbehavior in their schools, including reports of sexual assault.
But as educators across the country desperately try to reverse the losses caused by the pandemic, the Department of Defense’s academic results show what is possible, even for students facing personal challenges. Military families move frequently and sometimes face economic instability.
How do the military do it? Largely by operating a school system insulated from many of the problems plaguing American education.
Department of Defense schools are well-funded, socioeconomically and racially integrated, and have a centralized structure that is not subject to the whims of school boards or mayors.
There are about 50 American schools for children living on military bases and more than 100 schools internationally for students whose parents are stationed abroad, from Belgium to Bahrain.
Fort Moore, a major military base formerly known as Fort Benning, spans 182,000 acres on the Georgia-Alabama border. About 1,900 students attend school at the base each day, while their parents practice shooting, skydiving and other training exercises.
The schools (four elementary schools and one middle school) look a lot like regular public schools. Students arrive on yellow buses. Classrooms are brightly decorated with crayon drawings and maps of the United States. The sidewalk in front of Faith Middle School is painted with bear claws, a nod to the school’s mascot.
But there are key differences.
For starters, families have access to housing and health care through the military, and at least one parent has a job.
“Having as many of those basic needs met as possible helps set the stage for learning to occur,” said Jessica Thorne, principal at EA White Elementary School, a school of about 350 students.
Its teachers are also well paid, supported by a Pentagon budget that allocates $3 billion to its schools each year, far more than school districts of comparable size. While much of the money goes toward the complicated logistics of operating schools internationally, the Defense Department estimates it spends about $25,000 per student. on par with the states with the highest spending like New York, and much more than states like Arizona, where spending per student is about $10,000 a year.
“I doubled my income,” said White Elementary teacher Heather Ryan. At the start of her career in Florida, she said she earned $31,900; After transferring to the military, she earned $65,000. With more years of experience, she now earns $88,000.
Prudence Carter, a Brown University sociologist who studies educational inequality, said the Defense Department results showed what could happen if all students received the resources of a typical middle-class child: housing, health care, food and quality teachers.
“We’re not even talking about wealth, or whether they can go to fancy summer camps,” Dr. Carter added. “We’re talking about basic, everyday things.”
Military life has its own hierarchies, with base salaries ranging from $25,000 for an entry-level private to six-figure salaries for experienced officers. At Fort Moore, high-ranking officers live in white stucco houses, while enlisted soldiers live in modest duplexes. About one-third of base students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
But the schools are more socioeconomically and racially integrated than many in the United States. The children of young soldiers attend classes along with the children of lieutenant colonels. They play in the same sports leagues after school.
That reflects a history that dates back to 1948, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to desegregate their forces. In the years that followed, the military established integrated schools, primarily in the South, at a time when local public schools remained segregated.
Today, Department of Defense schools are 42 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 15 percent multiracial.
“The military is not perfect; there is still racism in the military,” said Leslie Hinkson, a former sociologist at Georgetown University who studied integration in Defense Department schools. But what sets it apart, she said, “is this access to resources in a way that is not racialized.”
Nationally, boundaries between school districts and schools are often drawn along class and racial lines, creating stark divisions in resources. In 2021, nearly 40 percent of Black and Hispanic public school students attended a high-poverty school, a rate three to five times that of Asian and white students.
But schools are inherently less political (big decisions come from headquarters) and therefore less tumultuous.
Case in point: an academic reform that began in 2015 and has continued ever since.
Defense officials attribute the recent growth in test scores in part to the reform, which was aimed at raising the level of rigor expected of students.
The changes shared similarities with the Common Core, a politically fraught reform movement that sought to align standards across states, with students reading more nonfiction and delving deeper into mathematical concepts. But unlike Common Core, which was carried out haphazardly across the country, the Defense Department’s plan was orchestrated with, well, military precision.
Officials described a methodical implementation, one topic area at a time: New curriculum. Teacher training. Global coordination, so that a fifth grader at Fort Moore learns similar material to a fifth grader in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
It took six years to complete the changes, longer than the average tenure of a public school superintendent.
Logistical planning, including a predictable budget, “isn’t very sexy,” but it is one of the keys to success, said Thomas M. Brady, the Defense Department’s director of schools since 2014.
Such a strict structure is something eighth-grade math teacher Cicely Abron has rarely experienced in nearly 20 years in public education.
At Faith Middle School, you cannot supplement the curriculum and must work from an approved list. Receive detailed feedback from coaches and administrators who observe your class. Collaboration with other teachers is necessary and is integrated into your weekly schedule.
The approach is intended to guard against what Dr. Dilmar, the school’s director, calls “pockets of excellence”: a teacher helping students excel in a classroom, while an instructor across the hall struggles.
Instead, the goal is to raise the minimum standard for all students, something Jason Dougal, president of the National Center for Education and Economics, sees in high-performing countries like Finland and Singapore.
American school districts often have an “all-star team mentality,” Dougal said, and rely on exceptional teachers and principals to get results.
But the most effective jurisdictions, he said, have a “systemic way of improving all members of the team.”
Audio produced by sara diamond.