The school system that succeeds despite COVID-19

As the rest of the nation struggles to overcome pandemic learning loss and overcome the fracturing that is eating away at school districts everywhere, a very large school system that serves 70,000 students is succeeding despite great uproar.

While not a perfect analogy to the wider K-12 system, the success of the network of schools tasked with teaching military-related children could offer insight into how to mitigate the enormous disruption to education.

The Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA, is a federally operated school system that provides K-12 education for children of military and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. As of 2021, DoDEA operated 160 schools in three regions – the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific.

A government report, released earlier this year, looked at the performance of children at these schools through 2019 on standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests compared to other U.S. students. This shows that military-related students at DoDEA schools excel.

This is an incredible feat, especially since children linked to the military lead very disrupted lives. They change schools every two to three years with an active duty parent. And with a parent sometimes deployed to do hazardous work, children face stress that others don’t as they manage schoolwork, family responsibilities and transitioning in and out of school. communities.

“Over the past decade, DoDEA students in grades four and eight have generally received among the highest assessment scores nationwide in math and reading, according to our analysis of NAEP data,” revealed the Government Accountability Office report.

In the most recent data reviewed by the GAO for 2019, the average DoDEA scores for fourth-grade math and reading assessments were above 98% and 100% of the states, respectively. Similarly, DoDEA’s average scores for eighth-grade math and reading assessments were above 94% and 100% of the states, respectively.

The GAO found high levels of success when disaggregated by race and for students with disabilities or students learning English.

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It wasn’t always so good for military-related kids. The GAO report notes that in 2011, DoDEA schools were closer to the bottom of the pack, with only 37% of states having lower fourth-grade math scores.

DoDEA Director Tom Brady said a turning point came in 2016 when the school system began implementing college and career readiness standards, starting with math. In addition, he has made a large investment in intensified teacher and leader development that has continued over the past nine years.

“Our commitment to student success and teacher training and development has combined for positive development in the classroom,” he said.

Jeffrey Noel, DoDEA’s head of educational research, added that part of the success can be attributed to an overarching philosophy that guides the use of resources. DoDEA schools focus on limiting excessive bureaucracy — a big problem for many school districts — and instead prioritize efforts that can have the greatest effect on students.

One of those efforts was a push for in-person teaching. DoDEA schools transitioned to remote learning in early 2020, like most other public school districts. But only a few months later, at the start of the school year in September 2020, DoDEA shifted its focus to in-person learning with mitigations. As of March 2021, 99% of DoDEA schools were operating in-person, and that figure increased to 100% last fall.

NAEP results aren’t available after 2019, so there’s no perfect comparison to past scores and whether they held up through the tumultuous years of the pandemic. But in the 2020-2021 school year, when many school districts declined to administer tests or tested only a small portion of students during their traditional annual standardized assessments, DoDEA tested nearly all of them. students. The results indicate that student results remained stable and consistent with pre-pandemic levels for the most part, and showed increases in scores for students of color.

The military-related children who attend DoDEA schools are not the typical public school cohort. They have relatives with jobs, health care, food and housing; their schools are well funded and do not have the same requirements imposed by the federal government. They also operate in a unique system of shared culture and familiarity among students, parents, teachers, faculty, and grassroots leaders.

But they don’t have it easy either.

DoDEA schools are succeeding – and it deserves notice. Perhaps their approach to dealing with students whose K-12 careers are severely disrupted can provide insight into overcoming something as damaging to student learning as a pandemic.

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. He wrote this for

Jeremy S. McLain