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Why California Should Look to Pentagon’s Schools to Improve Lagging Academic Skills



California's politicians and education officials, backed by unions, see money as the only important factor in California’s chronically poor educational performance, says Dan Walters. (CalMatters/Pablo Unzueta)
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The state Department of Education released results from the latest round of academic achievement tests of California’s nearly 6 million public school students last week and there were – unfortunately – no surprises.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters



California’s kids continue to display subpar skills in English language arts and mathematics – fewer than half meeting standards in the former and scarcely a third in the latter, with fractional gains at best.

As usual, the state’s educational establishment tried to put a positive spin on the results while blaming the pandemic for any deficiencies.

“These results suggest that California’s public schools are beginning to turn the corner on pandemic recovery, with gains on most assessments and a substantial reduction in chronic absenteeism, especially for our most vulnerable groups of students,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state school board, said in a statement.

As usual, too, Darling-Hammond and other officials touted their efforts to improve educational outcomes, most recently an extra jolt of money called an “equity multiplier,” that Gov. Gavin Newsom sought. It gives more money to schools whose students trail the most, on top of the extra money that predecessor Jerry Brown gave them through the Local Control Funding Formula.

As usual, the state’s politicians and education officials, backed by school unions, see money as the only important factor in California’s chronic inability to climb out of the lower tier of states in educational performance.

California Mired in Lower Performance Tier

California has been mired in that lower tier for years as shown by the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing program. Consistently, states that spend less than California does on its students – $22,000 per pupil in the current state budget – score higher.

By happenstance, California’s academic test results were issued just a few days after the New York Times, after extensive research, declared which U.S. school system works the best. Surprisingly, it is the 66,000-student system operated by the Department of Defense for offspring of military personnel and employees scattered across the globe.

The Times reported that “the Pentagon’s schools for children of military members and civilian employees quietly achieve results most educators can only dream of.

“On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam that is considered the gold standard for comparing states and large districts, the Defense Department’s schools outscored every jurisdiction in math and reading last year and managed to avoid widespread pandemic losses. Their schools had the highest outcomes in the country for Black and Hispanic students, whose eighth-grade reading scores outpaced national averages for white students.

“Eighth graders whose parents only graduated from high school – suggesting lower family incomes, on average – performed as well in reading as students nationally whose parents were college graduates.”

In a nutshell, the Pentagon’s schools are everything that California’s schools should be and are not.

“If the Department of Defense schools were a state, we would all be traveling there to figure out what’s going on,” Martin West, an education professor at Harvard who serves on the NAEP governing board, told the Times.

“How does the military do it? In large part by operating a school system that is insulated from many of the problems plaguing American education,” the Times concluded. “Defense Department schools are well-funded, socioeconomically and racially integrated, and have a centralized structure that is not subject to the whims of school boards or mayors.”

Maybe, just maybe, California’s politicians and educational bureaucrats should pay attention to what’s working in the Pentagon’s schools – and even in some exemplary California schools – and stop chanting that spending more money is the key to success while tinkering incessantly with curricula and teaching methodology.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.