A study on the quality of schools that serve Army children shows mixed results about the education of military kids — and even those results are limited.
The study has not been publicly released, but Army officials have discussed the findings with local school district officials. The study, conducted by WestEd, looks at how schools with 200 or more Army-connected students compare with other public schools within their states. Defense Department schools on military installations are compared to other schools within the Department of Defense Education Activity system.
The study was launched in 2013 by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who raised concerns about the quality of education for military children that were similar to those raised by former Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer in the late 1990s.
"The question has to always be asked," said Mary Keller, president and CEO of the Military Child Education Coalition, a civilian nonprofit that works to help educators, parents and others identify and address challenges facing military children. "The intent of the study was right and good."
There still is no way to compare schools and student performance on a national level, or even to verify that the schools have more than 200 Army-connected students, Keller noted.
"Despite the importance of school quality, there is no national or cross-state reference to inform parents about the quality of schools," stated the 2014 WestEd study, a copy of which was obtained by Military Times.
"This report fills that gap for Army-connected families" researchers noted, while adding that it's a source families can use to assess the quality.
States have varying standards, so some schools with Army-connected students may do relatively well compared to other schools in states that have lower standards. Keller noted that many states are working to raise their standards.
The study evaluates the schools, not the performance of military children within them, and it does not evaluate all schools collectively. The 393 public schools that serve 200 or more Army children are compared to other schools in their states based on factors such as academic performance, attendance, student-teacher ratio, quality of teachers, graduation rate, and participation rates and performance on the ACT and SAT tests.
WestEd researchers used publicly available, school-level data obtained from state education agencies, the National Center for Education Statistics, and from DoDEA.
Most of the schools' ratings on those factors fall within WestEd's broadly defined middle range — rated in the 26th to 74th percentile in comparison to others in their state, or within DoDEA. But a few schools are ranked higher or lower in most of the categories.
- In New Mexico, White Sands Elementary School (Las Cruces Public Schools) is in the highest percentile for all the categories, including academic performance, although information was available only in three of six applicable categories.
- In Alabama, 14 of 15 military-connected schools ranked in the highest percentile in academic performance.
- In Colorado, seven of 10 high schools near Fort Carson ranked in the highest percentile in academic performance; Classical Academy High School ranked in the highest percentile in nine out of 10 areas measured. Except for Widefield High School's lower percentile in ACT performance, all the schools had normal or highest quartile ratings.
- In Hawaii, Lt. Col. Horrace Meek Hickam Elementary School had three highest quartile areas out of four areas evaluated, including performance.
- In Louisiana near Fort Polk, North Polk Elementary School was ranked in the lowest percentile in the three areas rated, and academic performance data wasn't available. Of the other seven schools, six ranked high in academic performance; all eight schools ranked low in teacher quality.
- In North Carolina near Fort Bragg, Stoney Point Elementary School ranked in the highest percentile in three of four areas, including academic performance. Five of the high schools ranked in the lowest quartile of academic performance and six high schools had below-par graduation rates.
- In Tennessee near Fort Campbell, four Montgomery County elementary schools — Barkers Mill, Minglewood, West Creek and Woodlawn — had the highest ratings in three of four areas.
- In Texas, near Fort Bliss, Milam Elementary School had high ratings in four of five areas. At Copperas Cove near Fort Hood, Martin Walker Elementary School had high ratings in all five areas rated.
- In Virginia, Sangster Elementary School, serving Fort Belvoir, received high ratings in three of four areas.
DoDEA schools in the U.S. varied in terms of ratings, too. At Fort Stewart, Georgia's Brittin Elementary School, three of four areas were ranked in the lowest percentile compared to all other DoDEA schools. Pierce Elementary School at Fort Knox, which is now closed, received three high rankings out of four areas evaluated.
Some school districts had questions about the data. Frank Till, superintendent of the Cumberland County Public Schools near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said there was an acknowledgment of errors, and issues in the interpretation of data.
In three of the six evaluated Cumberland County high schools with more than 200 Army children, overall student academic performance ranked in the lowest quartile in the state, meaning three-fourths of schools in the state have higher student academic performance. And graduation rates for four of those six schools were in the lowest quartile in the state.
Till noted that one of those six high schools — Cumberland County's Jack Britt High School — had the highest scores in the state.
After the WestEd results, he said, school district officials looked at the performance of military kids, based on their Impact Aid information, and found that their scores are 9 points higher than the state average in science, and 8 points higher in language arts. Military children trail the state average in math by 2 points. Till said the military transience has a particular effect on math because concepts are taught at different times during the school year for various schools in various states. As for the graduation rate, he said, he's not certain where WestEd got its information, because all the Cumberland County schools are at or above the state average, and no school's graduation rate is less than 80 percent.
"While we don't agree with all the conclusions, that's not important any more," Till said. "The WestEd study caused us to recommit ourselves to make sure the military child is treated properly."
In April, officials from four school districts serving military children, including DoDEA, met with representatives from Fort Bragg to look at ways to improve those processes, including reviewing procedures for working with students moving into or out of schools, and communication with the military community.
It's a concerted effort between the school districts, he said. "We've opened up lines of communication. We were good, but we can be better."
Carla Coulson, director of installation services for the Army's office of the assistant chief of staff for installation management, said conversations have been going on around the country between installation officials and school districts.
"The chief of staff accomplished his goal of bringing a light and focusing on the importance of education of our kids," she said.