Research News

Military base schools boost student achievement by supporting whole family

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The Pentagon is not the first place to which policy makers look for ideas on increasing parental involvement in education, but they should, according to Vanderbilt University education researcher Claire Smrekar.

Smrekar has found that the high academic achievement of students at schools has its roots in an approach to education that supports the whole family.

“While some of the elements that lead to these schools’ success are unique to the general structure, safety and discipline of life on a military base, the schools’ approach to putting themselves at the center of family life and reacting to community stressors can and should be replicated outside of the military,” Smrekar said.

“What we found could provide a roadmap for public education systems, even in the era of No Child Left Behind,” she wrote in a report of her findings available on the Teachers College Record website,

Smrekar found that teachers, counselors and administrators at military base schools follow a model that places the schools at the center of family life and takes into account the stresses and changes affecting their students’ families, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The schools maintain high academic benchmarks and are generally small in size, ensuring that no child is overlooked. Specifically:
• The structure of military life on post supports engagement in children’s lives
• A corporate commitment to schools engenders strong family-school relationships
• Teachers and school counselors are perceived as caring, committed professionals who support student and family engagement

The new findings are a follow-up to a 2001 report by Smrekar and her colleagues at the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt commissioned by the now-defunct National Education Goals Panel, which identified several administrative, strategic, budgetary and programmatic factors leading to high student achievement in military base schools.

“The missing piece in the 2001 report was the role that parents, the neighborhoods and military culture play in these students’ success,” Smrekar said. “To understand these issues, we interviewed parents and examined other social factors on military bases.”

Smrekar found that in contrast to the popular image of the close-knit military community, enlisted soldiers’ housing areas are shabby, transitory, subject to crime and lacking the social support of officers’ living areas. The school is the primary place where neighbors in enlisted housing interact.

“Most enlisted members and their spouses reported that if they knew any parents on post, they knew them best from interaction at their children’s school,” Smrekar wrote. “Indeed, more than any other place or program on post, the schools emerged as the most critical institutional support and social sanctuary for families.”

Smrekar conducted the new study at one elementary and one middle school at Fort Campbell, Ky. She interviewed parents with children in the schools who included military truck rivers, Black Hawk helicopter pilots, aviation technicians, truck mechanics, military police officers, drill sergeants, tank and armored vehicle drivers, platoon leaders and commanders, as well as their spouses.

“We found that parents structured and enforced quiet time and space for homework and reinforced the high academic standards at home that are set by teachers at school,” Smrekar said. “Much of the parental involvement takes place in the home.”

Over 102,600 students are currently enrolled in Department of Defense Education Activity schools in the United States and abroad. The students’ parents or caregivers are military personnel who live on military bases. Approximately 40 percent of the DoDEA enrollees are African American or Hispanic.

The new report, “The Social Context of Success: School, Neighborhood and Family Structures that Support High Academic Achievement in DoDEA Schools,” was prepared for the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy. Smrekar is an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development.

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Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS