Public School Learning Outcomes – Three Systems With Different Results

I recently wrote about establishing and measuring learning outcomes in K-12 education. Less than three weeks later, NY Times reporter Sarah Mervosh’s article described how the best public schools may be those operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

According to Ms. Mervosh, the DoD schools educate approximately 66,000 students on U.S. military bases worldwide. The number of students in their schools exceeds public school enrollment in Boston or Seattle.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, is a federal exam used to compare states and large school districts. Last year, DoD schools outscored every district in reading and in math while avoiding losses in learning due to the pandemic.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) chart below provides an overview of DoD school eighth grade NAEP reading and math scores from 2013 to 2022 compared to high achieving and low achieving districts as well as the national average.

overview of DoD school NAEP achievements compared to high achieving and low achieving districts as well as the national average

Additionally, DoD schools had the highest outcomes in the U.S. for Black and Hispanic students. Eighth graders whose parents only attended high school scored as well in reading as the national average for students whose parents graduated from college.

Ms. Mervosh writes that the DoD schools have accomplished these education gains by avoiding some of the problems encountered in other districts. DoD provides excellent funding, the schools are socioeconomically and racially integrated, and have a centrally guided leadership structure that is not subject to politically elected or appointed school boards or legislators.

While the DoD’s 50 U.S. schools and 100 international schools may look like any other public school, there are differences. One of the biggest differences may be that military families have access to housing and health care, and at least one parent is employed.

The DoD education budget is well-funded with $25,000 per student per year in spending. The budget enables DoD schools to pay teachers more money and thus retain them at a higher rate than many districts. Unlike many school districts, supply closets are well-stocked and not dependent on teachers or parents to provide supplies.

Ms. Mervosh interviewed a Brown University sociologist who stated that the DoD NAEP scores demonstrate what can happen when every student is provided resources typical of a middle-class child: housing, health care, food, and quality teachers.

Military families have various income levels with entry-level privates earning $25,000 and experienced officers earning over $100,000. Housing provided ranges from modest duplexes for enlisted families to brick and stucco houses for officers’ families. Nonetheless, the DoD schools are more integrated socioeconomically and racially than most public schools.

DoD schools are 42 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black, 6 percent Asian, and 15 percent multi-racial. Resources are distributed evenly regardless of race.

Avoiding politics enabled DoD school headquarters to implement an academic overhaul beginning in 2015. The curriculum redesign was similar to the Common Core standards, and the rollout was implemented one subject area at a time. The rollout took six years to complete. Fortunately, DoD schools have had the same superintendent since 2014. He was able to start and complete the overhaul.

Curriculum in the DoD schools cannot be supplemented by teachers. Coaches and administrators observe all teachers’ classes. Teachers are required to collaborate their lessons with other teachers every week. The consistent curriculum and team coordination is designed to avoid localized “pockets of excellence.”

Ms. Mervosh interviewed the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy who stated that the DoD schools’ goal of improving results for all students is similar to education outcomes in countries like Finland and Singapore. Most U.S. school districts rely on exceptional teachers and principals to achieve high results. The best districts, however, have a way of improving everyone.

Part of the DoD schools’ success in improving reading and math scores, the implementation of a new and consistent curriculum, reminded me of the state of Mississippi’s implementation of a new phonics-based reading curriculum.

Mississippi’s teachers didn’t have the financial benefits provided by a well-funded education system, and they didn’t have the benefit of students coming from financially stable family structures. But they had a legislative mandate for change and a statewide literacy director who implemented the same program in every school district.

Sadly, this good news about the high achievements of the Department of Defense schools is offset by news published in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week.

Written by columnist George Will, the article pins much of the blame of the Chicago public schools declining performance on its teachers’ union. Mr. Will utilizes Chicago public schools’ achievement data provided by the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.

Among the statistics are the following:

  • Minority pupils compose 89% of Chicago’s public-school student body.
  • In 3rd through 8th grades, the percentages of Black students proficient in reading and math are 11% and 6%
  • In 3rd through 8th grades, the percentages of Hispanic students proficient in reading and math are 17% and 11%.
  • In 11th grade, the percentages of Black students proficient on the SAT in reading and math are 10% and 8%.
  • In 11th grade, the percentages of Hispanic students proficient on the SAT in reading and math are 16% and 17%.
  • In 22 schools, not a single student can read at grade level.
  • In 33 schools, not a single student can do math at grade level.
  • Last year’s graduation rate was 83% even though chronic absenteeism is 49% among low-income students.
  • School spending increased 58 percent over the last decade to $26,356 per student.

Mr. Will notes that the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund’s unfunded liability is $13.8 billion and rising. He recommends that residents of Chicago leave the state before being on the hook to pay taxes for these liabilities for poor educational outcomes.

While Mr. Will does not provide details about the Chicago Public School System’s curriculum, he provides two interesting facts:

  1. The head of the Chicago Teachers Union enrolled her son in a private school so “he could live out his dream of being a soccer player while also having a curriculum that can meet his social and emotional needs.”
  2. The Chicago Teachers Union is crusading to kill the Invest in Kids Act, Illinois’ school choice program, which serves 9,600 children from low-income families and had a waiting list of 26,000 children as of July.

The DoD System is well-funded, but Chicago’s School System is better funded. DoD improved results with a centrally implemented curriculum. Mississippi did the same. Mississippi families earn less money than Illinois families. Mississippi is more rural than Chicago, and the crime rates are lower. DoD schools had an 85% in person attendance during Covid; Chicago schools have a chronic absenteeism rate of 49%.

When you look at three different public-school systems like these, you can understand why there was an attempt to instill a national curriculum like Common Core where student outcomes can be compared across states and districts.

Chicago taxpayers should be aghast at its public school learning outcomes. My guess is they are based on the lower-income family waiting list for their school choice program. DoD should use their school outcomes in their recruiting pitches. Mississippi should implement a math program that can achieve improvements like their reading outcomes.

Our public education system needs to improve in many ways. Common outcomes measures provide a baseline for comparing the ways in which states and districts can make changes to improve. So does accountability.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence