Amid all of the nation’s school systems, one stands apart: the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA, which outperformed all others on the most recent Nation’s Report Card.
DoDEA schools are operated by the Defense Department and serve more than 66,000 children of military and Department of Defense civilian employees stationed in Europe, the Pacific, and right here in the Americas. The schools are either on or near military bases and are operated not by a state or local district, but by one of eight DoDEA districts.
DoDEA lacks many of the traits one might expect to see in a top-performing school system. Military families often move around a lot, causing their children to switch schools, and the vast majority of military families are not particularly wealthy.
But the results speak for themselves: When overall Nation’s Report Card scores fell off a cliff after the pandemic, DoDEA scores “held steady or increased,” according to a press release. The average DoDEA student scored 15-23 points higher than the national average on the reading and math tests.
AFT union president Randi Weingarten hailed the performance of DoDEA schools, crediting it, in no small part, to them being well-funded. In doing so, she confuses correlation and causation.
These schools are well-funded. But so are schools in NYC, Chicago, and Baltimore, which have some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation and yet consistently fail to teach students to read and write. The magic isn’t the money; it’s where the money goes and what school leaders do with it.
In reality, DoDEA schools are top performers because they have refused to do many of the things Randi Weingarten wants. When she was pushing for schools to stay closed, DoDEA schools started reopening in Fall 2020. Teacher unions routinely support lowering academic standards; DoDEA raised theirs through a multi-year rollout that began in 2016. Both of the nation’s largest teacher unions back “restorative justice” initiatives that destroy school discipline; DoDEA schools have a strict but reasonable disciplinary code.
By the very nature of the system, DoDEA money does not flow through a state government. There is no state bureaucracy siphoning off money that would be better used to provide student learning resources. There are strict limits on how many administrators and non-teaching staff members a DoDEA school may hire. More money makes it to classrooms, where it makes a difference: The New York Times notes that, unlike many typical school districts, teachers do not have to pay out of pocket for school supplies, and DoDEA schools can afford to pay teachers well, helping them recruit star performers.
There are also the intangible cultural aspects that decide so much of the success or failure of a school. If there is anywhere one might find a culture of responsibility and a strong work ethic, it is on a military base. The same goes for respect for authority, which other districts—as evidenced by the spike in behavioral problems—are sorely lacking.
Sadly, progressive ideology is beginning to erode so much of what makes these schools outstanding. In its Blueprint for Continuous Improvement, DoDEA has committed to creating “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) structures to lead and implement DEI across the organization.” This will only divert time, money, and effort away from education and into left-wing political goals.
Some activist teachers are not content to wait until the organization is overrun with progressivism: Two DoDEA teachers have admitted to facilitating children socially transitioning their gender at school without the consent of their parents.
These schools should double down on what works, rather than spend their effort on DEI initiatives or gender ideology. If DoDEA schools stay the path, they should be a model for the nation. If they choose to lose sight of education in favor of indoctrination, they will let down thousands of military families.