Published by the New York Times
By MICHAEL WINERIP Published: December 11, 2011
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — 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?
It has become fashionable for American educators to fly off to Helsinki to investigate how schools there produce such high-achieving Finns. But for just $69.95 a night, they can stay at the Days Inn in Jacksonville, N.C., and investigate how the schools here on the Camp Lejeune Marine base produce such high-achieving Americans — both black and white.
They would find that the schools on base 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.
They would find Leigh Anne Kapiko, the principal at Tarawa Terrace Elementary, one of seven schools here.
Test preparation? “No,” Ms. Kapiko said. “That’s not done in Department of Defense schools. We don’t even have test prep materials.”
At schools here, standardized tests are used as originally intended, to identify a child’s academic weaknesses and assess the effectiveness of the curriculum.
Ms. Kapiko has been a principal both inside and outside the gates and believes that military base schools are more nurturing than public schools. “We don’t have to be so regimented, since we’re not worried about a child’s ability to bubble on a test,” she said.
Military children are not put through test prep drills. “For us,” Ms. Kapiko said, “children are children; they’re not little Marines.”
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.
Ms. Kapiko, on the other hand, has discretion in how to evaluate her 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 also puts a priority on education. Bryant Anderson, a petty officer who is stationed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., is given time off from work to serve as president of the base’s school board and coach middle school basketball and track teams.
Parents with children at the civilian schools where Ms. Kapiko has been the principal have not received that kind of support from their employers. “If Dad works in a factory, he gets three absences and he’s fired,” she said.
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.
Nevin Joplin, a sergeant in the Air Force, has a son in the sixth grade at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Sergeant Joplin, who is black and a single father, said both he and his son, Quinn, had been given ample opportunities to succeed. Quinn has been placed in a gifted program, and Sergeant Joplin said he had been treated fairly in the military promotion system. “My records go to the board, my name is blacked out, anything that would identify me is blacked out; they only see what I’ve done and decide on the merits,” he said.
Capt. Derrick Bennett Jr. of the Army is also black and has a 7-year-old son attending school at Fort Benning, Ga. He says race rarely, if ever, comes into play on the post. But when he visits family in Birmingham, it is not the same. There is still a tendency in Alabama to look at a black man differently, he said.