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Educating for Democracy: For Good Education, Bring on the Marines!

In a recent New York Times article "Military Children Stay a Step Ahead of Public School Students," a very favorable picture of public school education on military bases was revealed where black student scores on the NAEP -- National Assessment of Educational Progress -- were much higher than those of their counterparts in the civilian population. In terms of the "racial gap" which, in many cases I would call the "poverty gap," black fourth graders in civilian public schools had a twenty-eight point gap with their white counterparts compared to an eleven point gap at military base schools.

There are many factors involved in this discrepancy that are directly related to poverty. On the one hand, the percentage of students eligible for federally subsidized lunches are exactly the same at both civilian and military base public schools: 46%. However, although members of the military might find themselves in harm's way in foreign wars, their families are not suffering from the kind of poverty faced by the poor in the civilian world: the military and their families have health care and adequate housing, and at least one family member is employed by a CEO that is not about to declare bankruptcy: the Department of Defense.

What struck me most about this "civilian gap" is that there is no test prep in the military base schools. According to the Times article, "standardized tests are used as originally intended, to identify a child's academic weaknesses and assess the effectiveness of the curriculum." In contrast to the state of Tennessee which is trying to remedy its woeful rating on the NAEP tests and teachers are going to be evaluated four times a year, at one of the military based schools mentioned in theTimes article, located at the Marine base, Camp LeJeune, N.C., the principal, Leigh Anne Kapiko observes teachers once a year. While relations between teacher unions and state administrations, principally in the midwest, have become acrimonious over the last few years, a Vanderbilt University study discovered that relations between management and the teachers unions at military base schools have been very "smooth."

While in New York City the average kindergarten class has 24 young learners, in military base schools the average is 18. And while some studies have indicated that racial segregation in public schools is as bad or worse than before Brown v. Board of Education, integration is much more successful in the military base schools which are largely located in the South "because the military was racially integrated and did not want the children of black soldiers to attend racially segregated schools off base."

This confirms for me that two of the biggest factors in these discrepancies in test scores is obvious: racial segregation in housing and schools. As long as this nation will not seriously address the root causes of racism: ignorance, fear, and economic insecurity, the problems of the "learning gap" will persist. But to me the success of these military base schools is also due to the fact that they have not been "standardized" by NCLB and RTTT. Teachers are given an opportunity to teach and that in itself is a good start in providing a successful education.

Meanwhile, with the mindless persistence of a buffalo following the herd over the cliff, Mayor Bloomberg is closing more schools based on the fraudulent test scores that our military ignores using because they are more interested in "getting the job done" than playing numbers games. I have never been a big fan of the military, but I know they can be helpfully pragmatic. So when I come across more of those test-based evaluations of student learning which have been consistently discredited in study after study, beginning almost from the time they were imposed on the nation's public schools.

I am compelled to say: "Bring on the Marines!"

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Joel Shatzky

Joel Shatzky is an early-retired English Professor who taught writing and drama at SUNY-Cortland (1968-2005) and is presently teaching English and writing at King...