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Want Academic Success? Do What The Military Does!

The results are now public from the 2011 federal testing program known as NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And once again, schools on the nation’s military bases have outperformed public schools on both reading and math tests for fourth and eighth graders.

At the military base schools, 39 percent of fourth graders were scored as proficient in reading, compared with 32 percent of all public school students.

Even more impressive, the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools.

On the NAEP reading test, black fourth graders in public schools scored an average of 205 out of 500, compared with a 231 score for white public school students, a 26-point gap. Black fourth graders at the military base schools averaged 222 in reading, compared with 233 for whites, an 11-point gap.

In fact, the black fourth graders at the military base schools scored better in reading than public school students as a whole, whose average score was 221.

How to explain the difference?
Military schools are not subject to former President George W. Bush’s signature education program, No Child Left Behind, or to President Obama’s Race to the Top. They would find that standardized tests do not dominate and are not used to rate teachers, principals or schools.

At military schools, standardized tests are used as originally intended, to identify a child’s academic weaknesses and assess the effectiveness of the curriculum.

Under Mr. Obama’s education agenda, state governments can now dictate to principals how to run their schools. In Tennessee — which is ranked 41st in NAEP scores and has made no significant progress in closing the black-white achievement gap on those tests in 20 years — the state now requires four formal observations a year for all teachers, regardless of whether the principal thinks they are excellent or weak. The state has declared that half of a teacher’s rating must be based on student test scores.

Principals at military bases have discretion in how to  teachers. For the most effective, she does one observation a year. That gives her and her assistant principal time for walk-through visits in every classroom every day.

“We don’t micromanage,” said Marilee Fitzgerald, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, the agency that supervises the military base schools and their 87,000 students. “Individual schools decide what to focus on.”

The average class in New York City in kindergarten through the third grade has 24 students. At military base schools, the average is 18, which is almost as good as it is in the private schools where leaders of the education reform movement — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York; the former education chancellor in New York City, Joel I. Klein; and Bill Gates of Microsoft — have sent their children.

A 2001 study on the success of the military base schools by researchers at Vanderbilt University cites the importance of the smooth relations between the teachers’ union and management, and Ms. Fitzgerald said that continued to be true.

Helping children succeed academically is about a lot more than what goes on inside the schools. Military parents do not have to worry about securing health care coverage for their children or adequate housing. At least one parent in the family has a job.

The military command puts a priority on education.

A family’s economic well-being has considerable impact on how students score on standardized tests, and it is hard to make exact comparisons between military and public school families. But by one indicator, families at military base schools and public schools have similar earnings: the percentage of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches is virtually identical at both, about 46 percent.

What is clear is that the base schools have made impressive progress in narrowing the achievement gap.

In the last decade, the gap in reading between black and white fourth graders at base schools has decreased to 11 points this year (233 compared with 222), down from a 16-point difference in 2003 (230 compared with 214), a 31 percent reduction. In public schools, there has been a much smaller decrease, to a 26-point gap this year (231 compared with 205) from 30 points in 2002 (227 compared with 197), a 13 percent reduction.

The military has a far better record of integration than most institutions. Almost all of the 69 base schools are in the South. They were opened in the 1950s and ’60s because the military was racially integrated and did not want the children of black soldiers to attend racially segregated schools off base.

I have mixed feelings about No Child and the Race for the Top.  As in life, there are good things and bad things in both.  What is for me a major problem, is the emphasis on testing.  Testing is one way of measuring achievement.  It is not the only way!  Educators use tests to determine what to do next not to place blame on students, parents and educators.  In the present political-educational enviornment, we have people who would rather fix the blame than fixing the process that causes the failure.

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