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DOD News Briefing on Back-To-School Initiatives with Marilee Fitzgerald from the Pentagon

Presenters: Marilee Fitzgerald, Director, DOD Education Activity (DODEA)
August 30, 2012

                MARILEE FITZGERALD: So I guess I'll just get started.  I thought maybe what I might do is just give a little opening statement and then make myself available for all of your questions.  How's that? 

                This is a great time for us, and I wanted to tell you that we have opened up 194 schools this year.  We have opened these schools in 22 countries, seven states and two territories. 

                Nearly 87,000 children are walking through the DODEA hallways, and what's even more incredible is that we have another 1.2 million children who are joining their peers in U.S. public school systems around this country, many of whom will go back next week. 

                But we still have quite a presence in our schools throughout the nation. 

                These children are a diverse group of children, and for DODEA they start at age 4 when they enter preschool in our domestic schools, and they go through grade 12.  And our children are mostly minority.  I didn't know whether many of you knew that or not.  But we have children from all different racial, ethnic and social and economic backgrounds.  

                And our students have one bond that unites them all:  They are all part of a military community.  And I'd like to refer to this group of military children as ambassadors of our U.S. military core values.  They are -- they bring a lifestyle, a commitment and a sense of purpose.  

                They -- their values are rooted in honor, courage, selfless sacrifice, loyalty, respect, integrity and excellence -- just like the families in which they live, just like their mothers and fathers who have made a commitment to our nation.  That's what makes these children so very special for us. 

                In their educational experiences, though, many will attend between six and nine schools before they will ever graduate, and that's in a pre-K through 12th grade environment. 

                Many of them move every two to three years.  In DODEA alone our mobility rate is about 35 percent every year.  

                Many of our children, as you know, have sadness in their hearts each day as they come to our schools, as they have a parent deployed, sometimes to a war zone and sometimes just somewhere that is really pretty far away.  

                And certainly one can't underestimate the challenges in moving your friend -- moving and leaving your friends and neighborhoods and the comfort of security and neighborhoods around our nation to join their parents in their military commitment. 

                And this is a point where I'd like to give a shout-out really for our teachers and our educators, because our educators understand our students.  They understand the unique aspects of our military life.  And many of our teachers are spouses of military members, so they understand full well the commitment and the sacrifices that our children make each and every day. 

                And we say in DODEA, and we live by this code, that when we open up those doors, and whether they're the doors of a headquarters or the doors of a school, that we honor and respect the many sacrifices that our military members make on behalf of this nation, and the education of their children will not be among them.  

                And so it is to our teachers, our counselors, our school principals and all those who have dedicated their life to teaching this group that I give a very warm and deep sense of gratitude. 

                It's the teacher who makes a difference.  It's the leader who makes a difference in this school.  And so they deserve a great deal of credit for understanding how to deal with these populations.  

                So, it's rewarding.  It's back-to-school.  The school bell rang, as I said, for our schools this week.  And it's rewarding for us to get back to educating our students and helping them achieve their highest potential.  

                The energy and enthusiasm I am hearing is just amazing and I can't wait to become a part of it in a couple of weeks as I begin my fall trips.  And the new school year is about creating possibilities, inspiring excellence and ensuring success for each student.  

                Each one of us has been a student.  And so I think we all remember how exciting it was to think about the new school year.  We begin with all the hope and promise.  We make promises to ourselves we're going to study every night, our books are going to come home with us, iPads or even our computers.  

                So it is a sense of renewal.  So it's a fun time of year for all of us and we're looking forward to being with our students this year. 

                So I open up -- and to our families as well; not just to our students, but to all of our families.  

                I would like to make myself available to answer any of your questions. 

                Q:  Can I -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Sure. 

                Q:  -- just start off with -- (inaudible). 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Absolutely. 

                Q:  You know, you mentioned that there were 87,000 children going in.  How many -- how many teachers, support staff that -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  We have about 8,000 who support our children. 

                Q:  And a couple of years ago, they were talking about renovating the infrastructure of all the schools.  

                FITZGERALD:  Yes. 

                Q:  Can you just give us a -- an idea of where that is? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  I sure will.  

                We have -- we have a major military construction program going on.  The learning environments are intended to optimize learning in schools.  

                As many of you knew and know, we had about 70 percent of our schools that were identified in poor or failing condition, not unsafe, but just  failing condition.  And the Department granted -- provided authority for us, about $3.7 billion over the course of five years, to fix the 70 percent of schools.  For us, that translates to 134 schools. 

                Today, we have 49 schools in design.  I believe eight schools are under construction, and we've opened up some new schools.  Irwin Middle School is one of them that has opened up. 

                And the schools that we are opening and that are under construction reflect some 21st century design principles.  So when you walk through out schools, you'll begin to see classrooms that look a little bit different, actually, than the classrooms that I went to school with.  And in fact, we don't call them classrooms today.  Know what we call them?  We call them studios -- studios of learning.  I know, so pick up a new term.  

                And children will have more collaboration spaces.  We introduced, as you know, in our middle and high schools laptops for our children, it's on a one-to-one.  We have a pilot going and we intend to expand the pilot to all of -- expand it to all of our schools.  But this year we'll finish the pilot and 14 schools have laptops. 

                So learning is a bit different when you have access to technology.  Some of you know that we're doing telepresence instruction, remotely connecting our children to teachers in other locations.  

                And so you can't use a traditional classroom setup to accommodate some of these new instructional approaches.  We do more project-based learning, and so our classroom spaces are reflective of the kind of learning and teaching environment we're going to be doing in this century. 

                Q:  And if I could ask another question? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  You may.  Sure. 

                Q:  Okay.  Sorry -- (inaudible). 

                (CROSSTALK) 

                Q:  You know, in years past, you've always seen where the DODEA or DOD schools ranked as far as the states went.  Do you have that sort of -- what are the newest figures for that?  Where do the DODEA schools come out as far as the -- their standing among the states? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Okay.  Let's -- there are several different tests that we can talk about.  So if we talk about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a test -- which is administered every two years, it's the only test which is administered across this nation for every student.  So it's a nice test to compare. 

                Only two grades are tested in a -- in a given testing year and usually in two subject areas.  On the last National Assessment of Educational Progress our children did as well as they have always done.  They were among the first in the nation in social studies and believe it was science.  I'll get back with you on the -- the second content area. 

                And what is impressive about the results of our children is that we still have the narrowest achievement gap among our children.  And when you think about a 35 percent mobility rate, that's quite a stunning achievement.  And that means that the gap between majority group and minority group students is the lowest.  Okay?  So it's the smallest -- the narrowest, which is what you're looking for.  Actually, we're looking for no gap. 

                So as we continue, our children are performing better and that gap is narrowing for us, which is very impressive.  

                But our children on the TerraNova, which is a test that we administer -- some states do, but when No Child Left Behind was introduced into our nation, many states adopted their own assessment -- so the TerraNova is not administered in every state.  But in those states that do administer the test, our children are all scoring above the national average.  

                Now, that is on average.  That's every student is achieving on grade level.  But we have very few students -- in fact, we have reduced the number of children performing in the lowest quartile.  This round of testing, it's probably the first time in a long period of time where we have shown such great progress in our children.  In fact, someone said to me they're not sure in DODEA's history where we've had such progress shown.  So it's been a great year for us. 

                That's not to say that we don't have work to do.  We're not content being above the average.  We want to be among the best.  We want all of our children performing in the top quartile, not just, you know, most of them. 

                Q:  Quartile, was that the top -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  The top -- the top, that's correct.  That's correct.  

                And we'll get you the data on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

                Q:  Are there other things that you're changing from an instructional standpoint or requirement standpoint for this school year that parents might want to know? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Sure.  

                Well, twenty-first century teaching and learning will look a bit different.  For some of us, we've seen some of these instructional strategies in our classroom for many years.  But there is a deliberate effort to center the education around children.  And for military children, this is a great news story.  

                Our children, as I said, come to us with -- you know, from all parts of the United States.  Some are ahead.  Some are behind.  And so the focus today is trying to customize that education for each child.  It's a student-centered education.  

                Now, our teachers have been doing that for many years.  But it's a very skillful instructional strategy.  We take you where you are and we keep moving you through your learning.  

                We don't worry so much about the traditional gates.  So, for example, you could be in an Algebra I class and actually be learning geometry, because you were able to progress -- you were able to progress at your own level.  

                This is important for our military children.  So we take them where they are and we move them through our curriculum, and we don't put an artificial gate on them.  That's what the new 21st century teaching model is based upon.  And so our teachers today are receiving professional development and refining their skills in how to do that. 

                A second feature of twenty-first century teaching and learning is ensuring that it's relevant to what we learn today.  I mean, I think all of us were in school and we sat there and said, "What am I ever going to do with this?"  

                And so classrooms today have the benefit of technology in ways that we did not, perhaps, when we were in school, that help us connect what we are learning today to real world experiences.  

                And some of the interesting things that you will see in the DODEA curriculum over the next couple of years is the use of simulations and modeling in our science and mathematics classes.  

                We've partnered with the Navy to develop software that will help our children understand some vague concepts through the use of virtual technology.  So you can see the actual movement of wind and forces and physics and so on that were concepts that were just vague and on page.  Now these can be explained in only ways that technology can do that and only ways that our military can bring training to be so vivid for our military, they're going to bring that to our classrooms for our teachers. 

                We're looking forward to that partnership.  

                We have another project going on with the Department of Defense to introduce an intelligent tutor model for algebra.  So we'd like to get to the point where we could say, "Your child takes algebra, they're guaranteed an A."  And we think that's possible. 

                Wouldn't that be great?  We'd all go back to school if that were the case.  But why not?  I mean, we should guarantee passing, shouldn't we?  

                So this software program that is being developed today, it's still in -- it's in development phases, it won't be out for a couple of years, we field tested pieces of it this summer and it worked out quite well -- we'll continue to adjust to accommodate to the student's learning.  

                So, you know, a set of questions are asked, perhaps, and those questions are different depending upon how you answer them.  And then the instruction is tailored through the use of technology. 

                In all of our classrooms you'll begin to see technology enhance instruction, where teachers will be using technology in the course of their everyday business. 

                This will be a common practice in classrooms.  You won't find this by happenstance; you're going to find this everywhere in DODEA.  And, again, we are developing a -- we're beginning a professional development program that will help our teachers refine their practices and use of technology in the classroom. 

                You're not going to see anymore in our schools over time these lab settings that we have where all the computers are stationed in one room.  You'll see teachers and students using them just as we do in the workforce, in the world of work today.  They'll just be another part of an instructional tool and they'll carry it with them.  They'll plug in just like we all do.  

                Our new schools, by the way, have neat spaces for them to do their plugging in.  They won't have to hang the walls and sit in the hallways to find an outlet to do that. 

                And so therefore I think you'll see very exciting curriculum being developed, instructional approaches for our teachers.  And so when we think about Twenty-First Century Teaching and Learning, that's what I think parents will see in the classroom, much more collaboration.  They'll see students working together and teachers facilitating that learning.  They'll see projects being done, much more project-based instruction.  That's one of the ways in which we make instruction relevant. 

                That's on the strategy side of the house, but there's also a real curriculum renewal as well.  We have increased our graduation requirements in mathematics.  And not only did we increase the course requirement, we increased the options in mathematics for children.  

                So we have financial literacy that is now in our curriculum.  We have five new courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  In total, I think we've introduced eight new courses in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- robotics engineering, green technology engineering, biotechnology engineering, applied mathematics and so on, additional advanced placement courses -- so that the curriculum is varied, diverse enough to appeal to our students' interest and relevant enough to prepare them for whatever they may choose -- college, a career in the military or a world of work.  

                But we're preparing all of our students to go to college, let's make no mistake about that.  We at least want them to have that option, to do that. 

                Q:  So you increased the requirements for math for graduation? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Yes. 

                Q:  Did you increase any other requirements? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Not yet.  But we're examining -- we have a project under way that's looking at all of our graduation requirements.  

                The next area under review is science.  And so we'll be taking a look at science and seeing how we compare against the nation. 

                And we're also -- we've made a commitment in DODEA to offer foreign language beginning in kindergarten.  In one-half of our elementary schools, in kindergarten through third grade, today we teach a foreign language.  We teach that language in the hope -- 

                Q:  I'm sorry -- elementary? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Elementary.  Elementary school.  

                And so -- but it's been -- over time we've not increased that beyond the one-half of the elementary schools.  We've made a commitment that in all of our elementary schools we will begin teaching a foreign language.  

                We've selected Spanish, but I can certainly imagine a day with this technology where that's even differentiated.  But for today it will be Spanish.  And that pilot begins this year.  We're looking at different modalities to do -- to instruct our students, our young students.  

                But the belief here is, it's not just that the study of a foreign language connects us to our social, economic, political and under -- national requirements.  It's not that we become completely global and integrated citizens. 

                Yes, all those things are important.  We don't engage this world today.  Very few of us do.  We don't engage someone or something that isn't part of the United States. 

                And so how we understand those differences are very important as we develop ourselves as human being and productive citizens in this nation.  We have a major global footprint.  And as I said, there just isn't any aspect of our life, whether it's political, social, or economic that deals with -- that doesn't deal with the international arena. 

                But there's a second compelling reason why we ought to study a foreign language, and that is that children who study a foreign language do better in school generally.  Pick the language.  It doesn't matter -- Spanish, French, Arabic -- the study of the language itself -- and the research is very clear on this -- helps all children, in all disciplines. 

                So, and thirdly, we do require, and many colleges do, a foreign language in high school.  And the sooner you start learning the language, the more easy it is to learn the second or the third language.  And so we hope to bring proficiency to all of our students.  

                We selected Spanish because if a foreign language is taught in our elementary schools in the United States, it's mostly Spanish that's taught.  So we wanted to help ease the transition for our children in the hopes that they would continue to study the foreign language or be able to do that when they return to school systems here in the United States. 

                Q:  In countries like -- I mean, you're in Japan.  You're in Germany. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  All of our children learn the host nation, yes.  We have a host nation program which teaches language and culture in the country in which they are in.  That's clear.  So yes, they get to learn the -- 

                Q:  (Inaudible) -- so actually you're talking about two -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Yes, actually talking about two.  Yes.  They'll learn Spanish for proficiency and the others they learn for -- what we hope proficiency, but it's a -- it's a blended curriculum which focuses both on language and cultural acquisition. 

                Q:  You mentioned half of the elementary schools already offer a foreign language and there is a pilot this year.  How many schools are involved in the pilot? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  I believe we have about eight schools -- and I will verify that for you -- who are -- and I'll tell you why we're piloting it.  You know, I talked a little bit with you about the use of telepresence machines -- these video teleconferencing equipment.  We know we can do that for middle and high school-age children.  But can you do it for a kindergartener?  

                Now, if we all watched "Dora the Explorer" we would say the answer to that is yes.  My grandchild speaks Spanish as a result of Dora.  So there are -- I think we can, but we have certain standards that we must teach when we're -- when we are making a commitment to language proficiency.  So we're introducing the use of telepresence equipment and testing, whether at young ages, this is a suitable way to teach the foreign language. 

                We've introduced some regular computer-based programs where the student is interacting with the computer largely, and even making sounds and so on for the language.  

                And then thirdly, we're expanding the teachers -- the one-to-one.  We have about 129 teachers today who are teaching a foreign language in our elementary schools to our children. 

                Q:  Is the pilot connected to what you're going to be doing with piloting in the virtual schools for elementary children? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  We're not actually bringing the virtual school to our elementary children.  The virtual school remains largely focused on middle school- and high school-age children today.  I mean, that's the -- we have not created, if you will, a virtual school for our elementary children.  

                I can see a day when they take courses through the Virtual High School and perhaps this -- if this works, this computer program for young children, we might say that that's kind of a virtual learning course.  But our virtual school is targeted towards middle- and high school-age children. 

                Q:  A pilot in spring for --

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Middle and high school.  Middle school children.  Middle school, yes. 

                And then we're opening up the Virtual High School for credit.  It's always been open for credit, but generally our middle -- our summer school program has been focused on enrichment or helping children make up a grade.  The virtual school will stay in play 12 months out of the year. 

                Q:  You guys have adopted the Common Core Standards? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  We have.  We have. 

                Q:  What is that going to mean for military children and their parents? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  You know, there's no panacea, but I think this is one of those major events in the history of education which will make a real difference for our military children.               

                DODEA will join -- you're quite right, Karen -- we will join 46 states in adopting the Common Core. 

                The standards are descriptions of what children should know and be able to do by grade level and in content areas.  So you can imagine the power of having standards that are the same for every state. 

                That doesn't mean that every state uses the same textbook and that every child is on the same page.  But it means that when you take Algebra I you're all going to be learning the same rigor and content will be applied to the study of Algebra I -- reading and language arts, science. 

                The states have adopted the two subject areas that are out now are mathematics and reading and language arts.  Science is under development.  And DODEA made a commitment to adopt the new standards. 

                We have standards in place today.  So by adopting the Common Core Standards I think this is going to be a much easier transition for our children when they move from state to state.  And I think, Karen, that's probably what holds the great promise for our children. 

                Again, it's not a panacea, but I think it will help kind of neutralize some of the disruption that occurs naturally as our children move, the academic disruption that occurs as our children move from place to place. 

                STAFF:  We probably have time for one more question. 

                Q:  (Inaudible) -- real quick thing, if you don't mind. 

                (CROSSTALK) 

                Q:  I mean, I'd like to ask it a little farther forward. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Sure. 

                Q:  The Department of Defense is shifting its strategy towards -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Yes. 

                Q:  -- the Pacific more.  What does that mean for DODEA? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Well, we're working with our military now.  It will probably mean a shift in population of where we educate our children for sure.  Where we educate our children in Okinawa, whether the Guam footprint will grow in some capacity as a result of these shifts. 

                As you know, we've had some adjustments in Korea already.  And we have been working very closely with our military partners to ensure that their force structure changes are synchronized in a way that helps us either establish or disestablish schools in the different areas. 

                At this time I can't tell you whether we're going to grow or shrink.  From what I see at the moment it's a net.  We'll plus up somewhere and shrink someplace else. 

                STAFF:  Jim, did you have another question? 

                Q:  I did. 

                (CROSSTALK) 

                Q:  I was just wondering, you were talking about the individual education for the students. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Yes. 

                Q:  Does that -- assuming they stay in DODEA schools as they move, which I know they don't always do -- 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Right. 

                Q:  -- does that follow them or do they have to be tested each time they -- or evaluated, I guess, each time they move to a new school – to sort of -- with this individual education type plan? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Well, the -- individualizing the instruction is an instructional strategy.  Okay?  So you come into my class and you are in the fourth grade and I look at where you are, what you need to learn, based upon the standards, and based upon how you learn I'm tailoring my education and my instruction to your needs. 

                And if I see that you can move faster, you do.  If I see that you need a little more time, I create that for you.  At the same time, I'm working with other children doing the same thing.  So it's a strategy of how we teach.  We call it differentiating instruction and that's how we personalize the learning. 

                That doesn't really have anything to do with the testing piece of it, because whether we customize that instruction or not, we still have standards that are in place, and so our children must reach those standards. 

                Q:  I guess my question would partially be, so let's say a teacher is able to determine that a child learns the best in whatever way that child learns. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Right. 

                Q:  Is there some sort of folder or something that goes with that child if they move to a different school? 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Absolutely. 

                Q:  I'm sure the teacher would still -- the new teacher would look. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Yes.  Absolutely, yes.  That's all part of the student records that shows where the child is in terms of his academic -- his or her academic progress.  Absolutely.  Those are usually reflected on the transcript, and then there are notes that are made that accompany the school records. 

                There has been -- it's interesting that you mention that question -- there has been some thought given to kind of a passport, if you will.  And so we haven't examined it yet.  It's an idea that intrigued me, that -- and especially today with technology, whether you could kind of create an academic passport where all this information is located in one spot, if you will. 

                In DODEA, we're launching a pilot -- we love pilots, as you can see, but you have to test these things.  I mean, they all have automated systems behind them, and if you don't test them, you know, you might crash on them.  

                But we have -- are you familiar with the Blue Button for the military health records?  There's that -- it's called -- I think it's called Blue Button, where you can -- you can go onto a website and you literally click on an icon that looks like a blue button.  And each military member is able to see his or her medical records -- right there, desktop view. 

                We're doing something similar in DODEA with student records.  We call it MyData Button.  And so parents will be able to click on one button and get all of their children's academic records, those that we have in our system.  And we have created it in such a way that it should be able to be transmitted electronically to most of our school districts on that platform that they will be able to pick up and draw down. 

                It won't be the official record because schools still transfer the official records.  But you can imagine how handy that will be for parents and for students as they're trying to move to school districts.  

                In addition, if parents want to look at that website, you can have little drop-down menus.  They can look at their children's grades, where their assignments are by class.  

                Today, we have it resident in a special program, but one day we see it all in one place, in a place called MyData Button, where you just click.  

                So -- so yes, I'm intrigued by the idea of an -- of a passport, electronic passport, educational passport.  We're not there yet, so we still use the traditional means of communicating that to the next school district. 

                Q:  Thank you. 

                MS. FITZGERALD:  Oh, well, it's been great fun.  It's been great.  I encourage all of you to get into our schools and see them and see all the fun things that are going on.  And I appreciate all that you do to help get the message out to our parents and children about school and the importance of it.  So thanks for what you do. 

                Take care.

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