Why do DOD Students Consistently Excel?


It isn’t very often that The Virginian-Pilot’s Op Ed page brings on peals of laughter at my breakfast table. But ever since Daniel Golden’s article delineating the high level of success in Department of Defense schools appeared in the Wall Street Journal, there have been some very odd ideas expressed on the last page of the Hampton Roads section of this paper. As distinguished national columnists such as William Raspberry of the The Washington Post and Anthony Lewis of the New York Times try to explain to the American public how this could possibly happen, they reveal how very little they know about the military lifestyle.

For example, Mr. Raspberry, who usually writes intelligent, well-informed columns on the state of public education in this country, feels that one area where the Department of Defense schools succeed where the nonmilitary counterparts fail is due to the “presence of parents, particularly fathers.” Now that’s funny. When I needed two hands to count how many deployments my husband had made, I stopped counting. This was due to that fact that I was so busy being Mom and Dad that I never had two hands free at the same time to count. Does Mr. Raspberry even know what a deployment is? What a geographic bachelor is? Or better yet, does he know what a “one-year unaccompanied” is? The “presence of parents, particularly fathers” – POPPYCOCK!

Mr. Lewis has this idea that the success of Department of Defense schools is because “the gap between high and low incomes is less stark among military personnel, and less distorting than in our civilian society.” Let’s take a closer look at this idea. A Petty Officer 2nd class with ten years of active duty makes about twenty-two thousand a year, and a Lieutenant with ten years of active duty makes a little more than twice that. They could both have a daughter in Ms. Smith’s third grade class in the DOD school in Rota, Spain. Each of those little girls knows that based on her active duty parent’s rank, not only is her allowance determined, but also the size and location of the house to which her family was assigned upon arrival in Rota. There are beaches where the officer’s family goes on Sunday afternoons, and there are other beaches where the enlisted family goes on Sunday afternoons. There are even specified parking places at the grocery store for the officer’s wives. There is nothing more stark and distorting to the civilian world than the military system of rank. By the way, it is also a difficult concept for third graders.

But the test scores show that this does not seem to adversely affect their ability to read and write. Roy Truby, who is the executive director of the board that administers the National Assessment Test, feels that this report “debunks the notion that demography is destiny.” So what does mark the destiny of these military dependent third graders at DOD schools? Obviously, I do not agree with Mr. Raspberry’s emphasis on the presence of fathers, nor do I agree with Mr. Lewis’ idea that the success is due to a less stark and distorting gap between an O6 and an E1. Furthermore, given that the military community is a reflection of American society, the performance of these children cannot rest with more caring parents, better prepared teachers, or brighter students. Ms. Smith in Rota, Spain has the same challenges as Ms. Smith in the local public school. In searching for the differences between the two student bodies, each columnist has failed to understand one basic feature. Of the 224 DOD schools, 153 are overseas. I would argue, therefore, that this study debunks demography for geography.

For the most part, these children who have scored so well on National Assessment Tests spent a total of three years of the K – 12 experience in DOD schools. The rest of their education took place back here the good old USA, and most probably in the local public school system. However, these children return with one great advantage. For those three years, they lived in another country, be it Spain, Japan, Korea, or Panama. In doing that, they have not only seen another culture but they have experienced it deeply. So have their parents. In fact, they had this life-changing experience together, as a family, and it has changed them forever.

A list of the possible changes is too long for the limits of this column, but I think most who have lived overseas would agree with this summation of the experience. One returns from an extended stay overseas with a deep appreciation for the quality of life – an appreciation which overrides quantity of life time and time again. With this lesson in hand, returning to the USA opens up so many vistas of opportunity to this family of sojourners – education being one of the most obvious. This is why these children continue to perform so well in life, long after 80% of them have graduated from college.

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