Sometimes I think there are just two kinds of people in the world: those who know easily and precisely why so many of our schools aren't working very well and those who, no matter how earnestly they struggle over the question, can't quite manage to figure it out.
The first group is by no means of one mind. Their dead-certain answers involve everything from phonics to teachers colleges to direct instruction; from poverty and racism to prayer and vouchers and corporal punishment.
The second group, of which I am decidedly a member, will grant that portions of the dead-certain answers frequently make sense but will insist they don't explain enough. Nor do we (some of us, anyway) accept the notion that indifference and incompetence on the part of teachers is the main ingredient of failure.
I have said--and still believe--that the inability of some parents to get their children ready for school learning is a huge part of the problem. Still I keep probing for some more comprehensive explanation.
And for good reason. Every explanation will find its refutation somewhere. A touchy-feely approach, a secular outlook, a penny-pinching budget--all will, somewhere, sometime, produce exemplary results.
How--to take the question that really sparked this column--does one explain the unusual success of some of the schools on America's military bases? Eighth-graders in these 71 schools as a group were outperformed in writing by only one state--Connecticut--on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress. They tied for fourth place in reading.
According to the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Golden, it isn't just test scores that make these schools special. Eighty percent of the graduates of these military base schools go on to college--the national rate is 67 percent--even though many of them switch from one school to another several times during their school years, meaning that they have to catch on to new teachers and make new friends again and again.
Poverty? Half the 34,000 students in these schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches--an accepted measure of poverty--because their parents are in the bottom pay ranks. Two out of five are either black or Hispanic, but they achieve at or above proficiency at rates far exceeding those of the civilian world.
How do these schools succeed where their nonmilitary counterparts so often fail?
Several possibilities come to mind--some of them pedagogical, some relating to the involved presence of parents, particularly fathers--but here, for want of knowledge to the contrary, is my first choice:
These children have parents who believe that their own efforts--not race, not special gifts, not breaks--are the chief determinant of their success. It's a point researchers who examine the American military keep coming to: Service members believe that the military for all its shortcomings is fairer than the civilian world. They believe that the requirements for advancement are clear, attainable and (usually) fairly administered.
If they didn't believe these things, of course, they'd hardly stay in military careers. Their nonservice counterparts, just as obviously, cannot quit the civilian life just because they think it's unfair.
My guess--and that's all it is--is that people who believe they can achieve based on their own efforts tend to raise children who share that belief. Military children, I am suggesting, may have an unusual degree of academic success because they hold to an unusual degree the empowering belief that they are in control of their destinies.
Too many poor and minority children in the civilian world are inclined to harbor the defeatist view that life is unfair, that breaks are haphazardly distributed and that race is a near-insuperable barrier to success.
Other possible explanations exist for the disproportionate achievement of military schools, and some of them--the presence of fathers who are both self-disciplined and accepting of military discipline, for instance--are quite attractive.
Which are the correct explanations? I don't know, but I can tell you this: If I were running a failing school system, I'd surely try to find out.