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FORT BENNING, Ga. — With a father serving as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, 14-year-old Tamaria Reed is used to moving from state to state, uncertain when she’ll have to pack up and relocate once again.

When she was in third grade, Tamaria moved from a public school in Panama City, Fla., where her class was just beginning to study geometric shapes. But at her new school on the Fort Campbell, Kentucky Army post*, third-graders were learning fractions. “The frustration was so high — that’s probably why I remember it so vividly,” she said.

DoDEA schools
Sixth-graders listen to English Language Arts teacher Tracy Lopez at Faith Middle School, Fort Benning, Ga. Credit: Cindy Givens/DoDEA

When Tamaria switched schools, she usually transferred to another Army post campus run by the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA, which educates about 78,000 children at 181 schools on military installations* in 12 foreign countries and the United States (including its territories of Guam and Puerto Rico). It is a system that, over the past two decades, has been steadily downsized as military installations, at home and abroad, have consolidated or closed.

“It’s been my experience that as soon as you get in front of a group of parents or staff and you use the term ‘Common Core’ it becomes, immediately, politicized.”

Children of military families often move between regular public schools and those in the DoDEA (pronounced “doe-dee-ah”) system, changing schools as many as six times over the course of their academic careers. Nearly 1.2 million school-aged children have a parent serving as an active-duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the vast majority are enrolled in U.S. public schools.

Now, in part to ensure a smoother transition between the two systems, DoDEA plans to spend the next three to five years phasing in the Common Core State Standards, which set grade-level expectations for what students will know and be able do in reading and mathematics.

Even as DoDEA prepares to adopt the controversial new academic standards, it is facing incertitude of its own. The U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing a study (to be made public later this year) which could recommend drastic changes for its 60 campuses in the continental United States. Options under consideration include maintaining the status quo, turning over operations to a local school district, converting campuses to charter schools, or shuttering them outright.

In the meantime and despite the unsettled future, the Department of Defense has allocated $5 billion in school construction funds — a nine-year project slated to run through 2020 — to renovate or replace nearly 70 percent of DoDEA schools in poor or failing physical condition. And DoDEA is forging ahead with the massive academic overhaul, scheduled to begin next fall.

Related: Cramming for Common Core: one Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

Currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia, the Common Core is often decried by opponents as a federal encroachment despite having originated out of a bipartisan coalition of the nation’s governors. So to sidestep that argument DoDEA — the closest thing the U.S. has to a federal school system — will use the phrase “College and Career-Ready Standards” rather than Common Core.

”Forty percent of DoDEA students change schools every year. By comparison Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, has a transiency rate of just under 19 percent.”

“It’s been my experience that as soon as you get in front of a group of parents or staff and you use the term ‘Common Core’ it becomes, immediately, politicized,” said Thomas Brady, who took over as DoDEA’s director last spring after serving as superintendent of Providence, Rhode Island’s public schools. “It gets confusing and emotional, for no reason whatsoever. We decided to defuse that unnecessary reaction.”

DoDEA’s decision to rename the initiative is a logical one, said Paul Peterson, a professor of government and education policy at Harvard University who has been tracking the public response to the new standards. His research found that using “Common Core” in an opinion poll triggers a negative response even though most people say they are in favor of national academic standards as a concept.

“The words have become tainted by the debate,” Peterson said. “I expect to see more of this kind of rebranding happening — many states are already thinking along these lines.”

Students in flux

After elementary school in Kentucky, Tamaria and her family again relocated, this time to Fort Benning, Georgia, where she attended DoDEA’s Faith Middle School located on the post. She is now a freshman at Columbus High School in the public Muscogee County School District; it is one of the state’s top-ranked magnet programs. A common set of academic expectations among states would help DoDEA students, Tamaria said: Post reassignments and deployments don’t operate on a school calendar and children in military families often scramble to catch up academically.

“We have so much else to worry about,” Tamaria said. “School should be the easy part.”

DoDEA schools
Girls practice archery during gym class at Faith Middle School, Fort Benning, Ga. Credit: Cindy Givens/DoDEA

Frequent relocation and academic upheaval have long been an unavoidable part of life for children of U.S. military personnel. Forty percent of DoDEA’s students change schools every year. By comparison Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, has a transiency rate of just under 19 percent.

In DoDEA parlance, on-base or on-post schools are “inside the gate.” By aligning DoDEA’s academic standards with the majority of public schools “outside the gate,” students will have a better shot at a smooth transition as they move among districts, states, and countries, Brady said.

DoDEA budgets $454 million annually to operate 60 schools on 15 military installations in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Local school districts are paid another $27 million each year to operate campuses and provide transportation for schools on military installations in Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York.

Related: Common Core can help English learners in California, new study says

The new standards are part of a broader effort to better prepare DoDEA’s students for the postsecondary challenges of college and the workforce. The percentage of DoDEA’s high school seniors who said they planned to enroll in either a two or four-year postsecondary institution was 80 percent last year, well above the national average of 66 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Brady also wants DoDEA schools to have a more streamlined focus, weeding out competing initiatives and programs contributing to what he called “education reform fatigue” among teachers and staff.

“When you move a lot, you’re struggling in the next location, and kids lose their confidence as learners. That ultimately results in … things that affect the decisions students make about life after high school.”

This is more than just a professional mission for Brady. In addition to serving in top positions in school districts in Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., Washington, D.C. and Fairfax County, Va., he previously spent 25 years as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. His wife, five children, and two of his grandchildren all attended DoDEA schools.

“We’re going to do a rigorous and correct implementation,” Brady said. “That includes professional development, and the resources to make this work.”

That strategy is in keeping with recommendations laid for DoDEA by Rand researchers in a 2012 report, based on the best practices of 15 “diverse, large-scale reforms.”

Testing and Teachers

Related: Are American class periods too short for Common Core?

DoDEA’s schools are organized into regional districts, with a significant degree of local control. Because DoDEA is funded through the Defense Department rather than the Education Department, it is exempt from the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which laid out escalating sanctions for schools and districts that fail to show adequate progress on student test scores. (DoDEA’s leadership said the system voluntarily abides by the spirit and intent of the law’s provisions.) That means less time is spent preparing for, or worrying about, standardized tests, the system’s educators say.

All the same, DoDEA’s diverse population of students hold their own against their public school peers on several academic measures — including standardized assessments — and in many cases outperform them. Racial achievement gaps found at public schools with similar student demographics aren’t typical at DoDEA campuses. Indeed, on the most recent Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), black and Hispanic DoDEA students scored significantly above the national average for their subgroups.

DoDEA schools
Students eat lunch at Faith Middle School, located on the U.S. Army post at Fort Benning, Georgia. Credit: Cindy Givens/DoDEA

DoDEA students, many of whom come from low-income households, benefit from an enviable network of support services designed to ensure their basic needs are met outside the classroom. Families have guaranteed access to housing, health care, and nutritional programs — all important to student achievement.

“The parents work for the same organization as the teachers — that’s huge,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “If a kid acts up there’s motivation for the parents to come in and address the problem. It’s a closed system, and very often the kids, parents, teachers live in close proximity. They have optimal conditions for optimal achievement.”

Those benefits aside, it would be a mistake to paint life for the children of military families as idyllic, said Claire Smrekar, a Vanderbilt University associate professor of public policy and education who has conducted several large-scale evaluations of DoDEA.

It’s often difficult for spouses to find work, which can mean getting by on one income, Smrekar said. There is also a high rate of divorces and remarriage among military families, as well as frequent, extended — and often dangerous — deployments. That all takes an emotional toll on the children, Smrekar said.

While its students routinely deal with upheaval in their home lives, there’s one aspect of DoDEA that is remarkably stable: its workforce. DoDEA’s 8,000 teachers are typically more highly educated and experienced than their public school counterparts. More than two-thirds of them hold master’s degrees. It’s not unusual to find a DoDEA teacher with a doctorate. At its U.S. campuses, teacher pay is correlated against salaries in the nation’s largest urban districts. Turnover is low. The department fills roughly 500 to 700 vacancies annually, and there’s a database of more than 20,000 applicants who have been prescreened to meet basic requirements: U.S. citizenship, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, and at least some teaching experience.

Related: Will weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?

During her visits to on-base and on-post schools, Smrekar heard from teacher after teacher that they would never want to work anywhere else.

“These are exceptionally well-trained teachers, many of whom stay in place for decades,” Smrekar said. “There’s a shared sense of mission and professional respect conveyed from the parents to the teachers to the students.”

Deeper Math, More Reading

The intent of the Common Core standards is for students to not just answer questions correctly but also be able to explain their reasoning, craft and defend arguments, and read complex texts closely.

The new math standards will be in place for DoDEA elementary schools beginning with the 2015-16 academic year. The literacy standards will follow. The decision to start with math came from the difficulty it poses for DoDEA’s students in older grades, said Brady, who called it the system’s “Achilles’ heel.”

DoDEA students will be expected to master fewer mathematical concepts at each grade level, rather than get by with a superficial understanding of a larger number of topics. Eventually, they’ll be expected to demonstrate “deeper knowledge” through activities like creating mathematical proofs.

Related: Common Core math standards add up to big money for education companies

DoDEA’s decision to focus first on mathematics is a smart move, said Mary Keller, president and chief executive of the Texas-based Military Child Education Coalition.

The national nonprofit organization provides support to families relocating both on and off military installations, helping them get up to speed on such items as state graduation requirements and transferring student records.

Falling behind in math can do both short-term and long-term damage to a student’s future prospects, Keller said, and it’s probably the most frequent academic concern the coalition hears from military parents.

“Gone is Gone”

The majority of DoDEA’s campuses are elementary schools, followed by middle schools and a small number of high schools. By the time students reach the upper grades their parents have often moved off base or off post or left active duty. That can mean former DoDEA students with shaky academic foundations struggle in later grades at a public school.

“The payoff in math is building on the prerequisite skills,” said Keller, who spent more than 20 years as a teacher and administrator in Texas public schools, including the Killeen Independent School District, which serves children with parents at Fort Hood. “But when you move a lot, you’re struggling in the next location, and kids lose their confidence as learners. That ultimately results in fewer Advanced Placement opportunities, weaker SAT and ACT scores, and other things affecting the decisions students make about life after high school.”

It doesn’t take much disruption for kids to get out of sync with school, she said. And it’s not just the stress placed on military families by 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parents are often deployed to places other than battle zones where their families can’t follow. Added Keller: “As the kids say, ‘Gone is gone.’”

Tamaria Reed agreed military life can be tough on kids, particularly middle schoolers already experiencing the normal stresses that come with adolescence. It helped to be at an on-post school where her classmates and teachers already understand the challenges facing families like hers, Tamaria said.

She also sees an upside to her frequent moves, and the “real world” preparation that’s come with it. Tamaria is planning for a career in medicine, and expects to have to relocate for college and then likely again as part of her advanced training.

“I’ll have to adjust,” Tamaria said. “And I know the adjustment will be OK.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about the Common Core.

*Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct military term for a domestic Army installation, which is “post.” It has also been updated to reflect the correct plural for referring to military bases and posts collectively, which is “military installations.” We regret the error.

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