The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Department of Defense schools
Kindergarten teacher Andrea Todd works with students Danielle Segura, left, and Avalyn Jordan, right, at Fort Bragg’s Hampton Primary School. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Standing in front of a smartboard, 5-year-old Kaleb Eckerfield touches an icon of a storm cloud with raindrops. He drags it with his finger to the empty space under the day’s date, creating an instant weather report.

“What do we know about how many sunny and rainy days we’ve had this month?” asks Andrea Todd, the teacher of Kaleb’s kindergarten class at Hampton Primary School, one of the nine schools located on the Fort Bragg Army Post in North Carolina.

“They’re equal,” Kaleb says, pointing to the illustrations. “One, two. Two of each.”

The next task awaits: a math problem requiring him to add up a string of six black dots, and then subtract two more dots from that total.

Kaleb studies the equation, and then looks up on the wall at a poster of a notched line marked 1-40. He carefully writes “4” on the board.

“How did you decide to write that number here?” Todd asks, with nothing in her tone or body language to indicate whether Kaleb is right.

“I counted the dots and then I looked at the number line and then I jumped back,” Kaleb tells her, while several of his classmates, seated cross-legged on a multicolored carpet, nod vigorously in agreement.

“I like how you used that math tool, the number line, to figure out the correct answer,” Todd says.

This past fall, Hampton, along with dozens of other elementary schools that serve the children of military families — known collectively as the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools – began phasing in new grade-level expectations for math. Known as DoDEA’s College and Career-Ready Standards, they are essentially a mirror image of the Common Core – rebranded to avoid the political swampland that has embroiled the initiative in controversy elsewhere in the nation. Now experts are asking, can DoDEA’s new approach to teaching and learning yield valuable lessons for public schools more broadly?

Department of Defense schools
Principal Priscilla Joiner escorts second-grader Grey Burgess back to class at Kimberly Hampton Primary School at Fort Bragg, N.C. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

DoDEA (pronounced “doe-dee-ah”) educates about 78,000 children at 181 schools in 12 foreign countries and the United States including its territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. Funded through the Department of Defense rather than the U.S. Department of Education, DoDEA’s students tend to perform above the national average when it comes to metrics like standardized test scores and college-going rates. Its schools are often highly diverse and there is a measurably smaller achievement gap among many of the system’s black and Hispanic students than is typically found in public schools.

There are plenty of reasons why these schools do well. Small class size is the norm and parental involvement is compulsory. Families are also guaranteed access to housing, health care and nutritional programs, all of which influence student achievement. The 8,000 DoDEA teachers worldwide are more likely to hold advanced degrees than their public school counterparts, and more likely to have more experience since the jobs are highly coveted.

But the hurdles for children in military families are also very real, says Claire Smrekar, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, who has researched DoDEA for more than 15 years. Given the transiency of military life, children can change schools as often as six times over the course of their academic careers, potentially leaving them on shaky academic foundation. Other challenges include a high rate of divorces and remarriage among military families, the strain of frequent or extended deployments, and the difficulty of finding work for spouses of military personnel, which can mean getting by on one income.

By aligning DoDEA’s new standards to the Common Core — adopted by more than 44 states and the District of Columbia — students are more likely to find consistent grade-level expectations when they relocate.

“Whether families are in Turkey or Japan or Korea or the United States, that’s going to be a similar school experience,” said Carolyn Landel, managing director of the Charles A. Dana Center at University of Texas at Austin, which has a $12.7 million contract with DoDEA to train its teachers on the new standards. “That’s a huge acknowledgement of the kids who need that kind of coherence the most.”

Department of Defense schools
First grader Rachel Ritchey works on a picture while classmate Sam Del Vecchio helps Chanel Badillo-Pabon with her apron during art class at Kimberly Hampton Primary School, Fort Bragg, N.C. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

For now, the math grade-level expectations are applied at the primary school level. The upper grades, along with new standards for English Language Arts, will be phased in over the next few years.

Smrekar is optimistic that DoDEA is off to a good start. It would be difficult to find a network of schools with a better shot at successfully implementing the new math standards given its track record, resources, and human capital, she said.

“It’s not unreasonable to ask ‘If DoDEA can’t do it, who can?’” she added.

Landel agreed that DoDEA’s teacher workforce gives the system an advantage in implementation.

“We do a lot of work in urban districts with a lot more turnover,” Landel said. “The stability and highly quality in DoDEA’s workforce gives us higher hopes that the changes will be lasting and won’t disappear as teachers leave and new ones come in.”

Department of Defense schools
At Fort Bragg’s Kimberly Hampton Primary School, students are grouped by grade into “neighborhoods” with classes sharing common areas. Folding glass panels can be used to divide the space into smaller learning studios. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

The new standards require students to master fewer mathematical concepts at each grade level, rather than get by with a superficial understanding of many topics. Eventually, they’ll be expected to demonstrate “deeper knowledge” through activities like creating proofs and explaining their work. These are all skills experts say could help make U.S. students more globally competitive, and raise the bar for college- and career-readiness.

For Hampton kindergarten teacher Todd, who is in her ninth year as a teacher including five with DoDEA, the training for incorporating the new math standards has already helped her turn once-routine classroom tasks into teachable moments.

One example: Every morning, students are expected to put their own names onto “10-frames” — a teaching tool that is a staple of Common Core-aligned math instruction for young learners. The 10-frame begins as a grid of 10 empty boxes. A full grid becomes a shortcut for representing the number “10” and helps students visualize, and carry out, more complex calculations.

“Last year I would probably have just taken attendance,” Todd says with a laugh. “I’m much more intentional now about using math vocabulary, and encouraging students to use it, throughout the day. It’s not just ‘this is the hour when we work on our math.’”

Teachers at all the DoDEA’s schools are receiving the same training so that the classroom experience for students is similar even as they move installations.

When parents ask how far behind their kids will be if there’s a transfer to Germany or Japan, “I can tell them ‘they’ll be right on track’,” said Wendy Sancho, a DoDEA mathematics instructional system specialist assigned to Fort Bragg’s schools.

Less talking, more listening

Department of Defense schools
Millard Lamm works with first-grade students at Kimberly Hampton Primary School at Fort Bragg, N.C. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

Mr. Lamm is wearing his snowman hat.

His first-graders know what that means: If you have a question, ask another student in your group for help before going to the teacher. This gives Millard Lamm, a veteran educator with 36 years of experience, a few minutes to work quietly at a table with three students who need extra help.

With Lamm occupied, the rest of students choose from a variety of activity stations in one of the common areas that links different classrooms at Hampton. The students mingle with other first-grade classes and, while they have different teachers, they’re all working on interrelated projects this quarter, including creating a puppet show to share their knowledge about various animals and habitats.

Named for the nation’s first female military pilot to be killed in battle, Kimberly Hampton Primary School serves about 485 students in prekindergarten through second grade at Fort Bragg. (There are nine schools total, serving preschool through grade 8. Students must go off the installation for high school.) Close to half of Hampton’s student population are children of color, including about a quarter that are Hispanic, and 13 percent that are African-American. (Half of the students are white and another 7 percent are identified as “multiracial”.) The Fayetteville installation is home to the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, as well as the 82nd Airborne Division.

Opened in 2014, Hampton’s building is well suited to the new curriculum. The grades are divided up into “neighborhoods,” with smaller “learning studios” for each class surrounding a shared common area. Folding glass panels allow the teachers to reconfigure the space as needed. The school is also using a project-based learning model: In the mornings, classes meet for group instruction with their teachers in reading, math, science, and social studies. In the afternoons, students work both independently and on collaborative activities, all designed to reinforce the core subject matter covered in the morning hours.

Department of Defense schools
From left, Xavier Simms, 7, and Daniel Chu, 6, work on a puzzle at Kimberly Hampton Primary School at Fort Bragg, N.C. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

DoDEA looked to the International Baccalaureate program for ideas and the Buck Institute for Education, one of the leading proponents of project-based learning, says Sancho, who works with teachers at Fort Bragg’s nine DoDEA campuses. And the new approach proving to be a natural fit with the new academic standards.

“We talk a lot about students needing to be able to solve ‘real world’ problems and make those connections to their academic work – but what is ‘real world’ to a kindergartener?” Sancho asked. “At Hampton, it means using mathematical concepts that are directly related to what they’re working on, like figuring out how big they need to build a set for their puppet show. That’s both rigorous and developmentally appropriate.”

The new school model has also made Hampton a more creative place to work, said Lamm, who started his teaching career at Fort Bragg and then worked as an educator and administrator in North Carolina public schools for more than 30 years before re-joining DoDEA in 2013. And the new approach to instruction, coupled with the new standards “changed everything,” Lamm says.

“We’ve completely eliminated ‘skill and drill’,” Lamm says. “What we’re seeing is a lot richer because it’s their own work and their own thinking, instead of just a worksheet.”

Asking 6-year-olds to explain their reasoning might seem like a lofty goal, but it’s working better than this veteran educator admits he would have predicted.

Department of Defense schools
Amy Burgess with her children, both students at Fort Bragg’s Kimberly Hampton Primary School. Grey is a second-grader and Ella is a preschooler. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

“I’m doing a lot less talking – I’m the facilitator and (the students) are the communicators,” Lamm says.

Too much, too soon?

After days of steady downpour, the sun is peeking out and Hampton is taking full advantage of the improved weather. A span of mature trees separates the school from one of Fort Bragg’s housing developments – a mix of modest homes flying U.S. flags and the occasional college football banner. While adults supervise students on climbing structures and those engaged in impromptu games of tag during recess, a teacher brings her class outside for a nature walk at the far end of the playground.

Even as the DoDEA has put a lot of resources into easing its teachers into the new math standards, parents also have a steep learning curve ahead. For Amy Burgess, whose son is in second grade at Hampton, the first inkling of just how different things were going to be came in the form of math homework. Instead of just a worksheet, her 7-year-old got a page of lined notebook paper to explain how he reached his conclusions.

“Before (the new standards) it was more about him memorizing math facts and whipping through flashcards,” said Burgess, whose husband is a battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne. “But maybe that wasn’t real learning – maybe this way is better.”

There’s another concern: the Common Core is based on the idea that a successive grade builds on the knowledge that students have acquired — and retained — during the prior year. That’s already turned out to be an issue at Hampton.

Early in the fall, all the first-grade teachers tried out a new test provided in a Common Core-aligned workbook to measure how well students had mastered the first set of math concepts. Students were asked to look at an illustration of 30 buttons scattered on a page and count up the total. The test also posed this challenge: “Your friend Maria said that you could count the buttons faster if they were in groups. Draw or write how you could group the buttons to count them faster.”

Talking it over during their next weekly meeting, the teachers realized almost none of their students had been able to follow those instructions.

Department of Defense schools
Traci Cooper leads a collaboration session at Kimberly Hampton Primary School at Fort Bragg. Cooper, the staff development teacher, meets weekly with the faculty of each grade to check on student progress and share ideas. Credit: Jill Knight for The Hechinger Report

And here’s why: Under the new academic standards, the “grouping” shortcut for counting scattered configurations is supposed to be taught in kindergarten. Hampton’s newly minted first-graders hadn’t had the benefit of those lessons, said staff development teacher Traci Cooper, who leads the weekly teacher collaboration meetings for each grade.

Hampton’s teachers now preview each upcoming curriculum test to make sure there are no instructional “doughnut holes” to be filled in, Cooper said.

Encountering those kinds of instructional gaps is not uncommon for schools implementing new standards, says William Schmidt, an education professor at Michigan State University who researches the effects of curriculum on student achievement, particularly in math.

The Common Core standards are supposed to help students see the innate principles of math. “There’s a coherence to it, and a logic,” Schmidt says. “But that doesn’t make a difference if it’s not reflected in how the standards are delivered to the kids. Learning math should be less like memorizing the phone book and more like reading a story and discovering how things are connected as you move forward and explore.”

Hampton Primary parent Michael Del Vecchio agrees the “new math” can take some getting used to for parents since it’s not the way most of them were taught. But he’s also been impressed by the degree of confidence with which his first-grade son is using vocabulary like “collaborated” and “brainstormed” to describe his school-day activities, and how he’s rising to the challenge of higher expectations.

The family isn’t sure where they’ll be next fall as Del Vecchio’s wife – an Army physician – is up for reassignment. But if they don’t stay at Fort Bragg, Del Vecchio hopes they will be somewhere with access to a DoDEA school.

“I want my kids to be successful moving from grade to grade, state to state, and maybe even to another country,” Del Vecchio said. “We’re talking about skills they need not just for school but for life.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *