Who Runs the Best U.S. Schools? It May Be the Defense Department.

By Sarah Mervosh for the NY Times

Amy Dilmar, a middle-school principal in Georgia, is well aware of the many crises threatening American education. The lost learning that piled up during the coronavirus pandemic. The gaping inequalities by race and family income that have only gotten worse. A widening achievement gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students.

But she sees little of that at her school in Fort Moore, Ga.

The students who solve algebra equations and hone essays at Faith Middle School attend one of the highest-performing school systems in the country.

It is run not by a local school board or charter network, but by the Defense Department.

With about 66,000 students — more than the public school enrollment in Boston or Seattle — the Pentagon’s schools for children of military members and civilian employees quietly achieve results most educators can only dream of.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam that is considered the gold standard for comparing states and large districts, the Defense Department’s schools outscored every jurisdiction in math and reading last year and managed to avoid widespread pandemic losses.

Their schools had the highest outcomes in the country for Black and Hispanic students, whose eighth-grade reading scores outpaced 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.

The schools reopened relatively quickly during the pandemic, but last year’s results were no fluke.

While the achievement of U.S. students overall has stagnated over the last decade, the military’s schools have made gains on the national test since 2013. And even as the country’s lowest-performing students — in the bottom 25th percentile — have slipped further behind, the Defense Department’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 be traveling there to figure out what’s going on,” said Martin West, an education professor at Harvard who serves on the national exam’s governing board.

How does the military do it? In large part by operating a school system that is insulated from many of the problems plaguing American education.

Defense Department 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…

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 does help set the scene for learning to occur,” said Jessica Thorne, the principal at E.A. White Elementary, a school of about 350 students.

Her teachers are also well paid, supported by a Pentagon budget that allocates $3 billion to its schools each year, far more than comparably sized school districts. While much of the money goes toward the complicated logistics of operating schools internationally, the Defense Department estimates that it spends about $25,000 per student, on par with the highest-spending states like New York, and far more than states like Arizona, where spending per student is about $10,000 a year.

“I doubled my income,” said Heather Ryan, a White Elementary teacher. Starting her career in Florida, she said she made $31,900; after transferring to the military, she earned $65,000. With more years of experience, she now pulls in $88,000.

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