Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

"It's a Way of Life for Us": High Mobility and High Achievement in Department of Defense Schools

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

"It's a Way of Life for Us": High Mobility and High Achievement in Department of Defense Schools

Article excerpt

This article focuses on the academic performance of students in a system characterized by high student mobility: the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school system. Some observers contend that the high achievement among highly mobile students in DoDEA schools is a function of the middle-class family and community characteristics of these students. We believe that such a view is overly simplified. We argue that DoDEA schools simultaneously "do the right things" and "do things right," including the way individual schools-and the system-respond to high student mobility rates.

The debate among scholars continues regarding the degree to which an array of economic, social, cultural, psychological, and institutional factors influence student achievement. Most agree that differences in students' performance on standardized tests are related to a set of school conditions and family characteristics, including student mobility (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990). High student mobility or transience may create disruptions and distractions that negatively impact classroom environments, limit instructional continuity, and diminish student engagement. The instability often associated with high student mobility adversely affects family life and school life. How should school systems take account of these conditions in ways that promote student engagement and lead to high academic performance? This article focuses on the academic performance of students in a system characterized by high student mobility: the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school system.

This study, conducted by researchers at the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, was designed to provide a descriptive analysis of DoDEA schools that have demonstrated high minority student achievement and high achievement overall, as measured by the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; see Table 1). This is not a comparative study, nor do we make any claims of causality about the effects of school environment and family characteristics on student achievement. The study focuses on a set of systemwide governance structures, school conditions, instructional policies, teacher characteristics, and administrative practices that are related to a school's capacity to produce student learning (Cohen & Ball, 1999; Cohen & Spillane, 1992; Corcoran, 1995; Ferguson, 1998). We also explore school climate to examine whether or not DoDEA schools reflect the properties of "communally organized" schools that research suggests produce higher achievement (Bryk (C) Driscoll, 1988; Bryk, Lee, (C) Holland, 1993; Coleman (C) Hoffer, 1987).

METHOD

We visited 15 middle schools located in 10 school districts across the United States, Germany, and Japan (five domestic districts and five overseas districts). The schools in our study reflect the average minority student enrollment for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS) and Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS) systems, although some schools in the study reflect a higher-than-average minority enrollment. We deliberately selected schools that vary somewhat in size, mobility rates, installation deployment and training patterns, pay and rank composition of parents, and in the percentage of children eligible for free and reduced lunch. This selection decision produced a group of schools that reflects the depth, range, and diversity of DoDDS and DDESS schools.

Approximately 130 interviews were completed over the course of the four-month data collection period. We conducted in-depth interviews with the principal and language arts teachers at each school. At each district, military commanders and liaisons, curriculum specialists, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent were interviewed. Our interest focused on issues of financial supports, resource allocation, personnel recruitment and selection, teacher quality, accountability, leadership styles, program diversity, and academic policy priorities. …

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