Friday, January 27, 2012


Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein | The Nation blogs/Education, health, women's issues and politics |

January 25, 2012 - 12:14am ET  ::  In general, I was underwhelmed by the education sections of President Obama’s State of the Union address, which were long on platitudes and short on honest talk about the difficulties of implementing school reform.

Most notably, the president made an odd and surprising proposal to make dropping out of high school illegal before the age of 18:

We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

Obama has, thankfully, done more than his predecessor to focus attention on underperforming high schools. George W. Bush’s signature education bill, No Child Left Behind, put most of its emphasis on fourth and eighth grade test scores in just two subjects, reading and math, while Obama’s school turnaround programs include support for so-called “dropout factories,” high schools with a graduation rate of less than 60 percent. The administration has focused, however, on fostering management reform in those schools, by turning them over to charter-school chains or replacing their principals and teaching staffs. It seems to me, however—and to many innovative high school educators—that one can’t really address the drop-out crisis without making school much more engaging for low-income teenagers, whether or not they show an inclination toward making it to and through a four-year college. This means dealing head-on with curriculum, not just tinkering with how teachers are hired and fired, and by whom.

So before we make dropping out of high school a crime for either students or the schools that let them go, we might try offering teenagers high-quality, relevant vocational education, through programs that link students to employers in their area. I profiled a few great models in this article, all of which demonstrate that “career and technical education” can coexist with a college-preparatory curriculum for all students. And though it can be politically difficult to talk about the life outcomes of students who are unlikely to graduate college, it is crucial that we do so. According to research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about a third of the American jobs created between now and 2018 will require an occupational certificate, but not a four-year college degree. President Obama knows this, which is why he spoke tonight about turning community colleges into “community career centers.” The truth is, high schools should also be offering career and technical education programs that ready students for the job market.

Then there was the section of the speech on teachers. Obama said:

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

I applaud the president’s effort to support accountability for teachers while dialing down the sometimes nasty rhetoric about the profession. (See: Chris Christie.) Obama was clearly tipping his hat to the teachers’ unions when he said schools should “stop teaching to the test;” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten responded with a series of enthusiastic tweets and a press release.

But here’s the rub: what Obama didn’t say is that he supports using student test scores to judge which teachers are effective. His administration has tied significant financial incentives to that priority, so states and districts are scrambling to create many more standardized tests to evaluate each and every teacher, including teachers of nontraditional subjects such as art, music and physical education, as well as teachers in the early grades, right down to kindergarten.

Many teachers’ unions have agreed in principle to these reforms, but the devil is in the details. Does President Obama believe multiple choice tests are the best kind of assessments, or will his Department of Education finally publish detailed guidelines that help states develop more sophisticated assessments? It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of “creative, passionate” teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or—as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country—cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so. In fact, in an acknowledgment of this problem, the Department of Education announced last week that it will host a symposium on best practices to root out adult cheating in public schools.

It’s also worth noting what the president did not say. He never mentioned No Child Left Behind and did not call on Congress to reauthorize the embattled legislation. This was also the first time President Obama failed to mention early childhood education in a State of the Union address, an interesting omission given David Brooks’s late interest in the topic, a perennial progressive favorite. Of course, widely expanding access to quality day care and pre-K would require a massive increase in state and federal education spending, which certainly won’t happen in the current political climate.

Update from Dana Goldstein:

More on Obama's SOTU Proposal on High-School Drop-Outs

January 25, 2012  ::  I love Twitter! After I published my Nation column on the education proposals in the State of the Union, friend and Obama admin alum Josh Bendor got in touch to alert me to some interesting research on the positive effects of forcing kids to stay in school until age 18. Some of this work was done by Alan Kreuger of Princeton, who is now the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Another paper, by Philip Oreopoulos, found that "dropping out one year later increases present value income by more than 10 times forgone earnings and more than 2 times the maximum lifetime annual wage."

I still think that alongside any discussion of raising the age of compulsory schooling, we must talk about how high schools can provide more relevant career and technical education. Keeping would-be drop-outs in the classroom without making sure they are engaged is a recipe for a dysfunctional school climate, and we know high-risk students are hungry for instruction with real-world applications. A 2006 Gates Foundation survey of high school drop-outs found that about half left school because it wasn't interesting to them, and a third felt they had to leave school in order to support themselves or their family financially. These are some of the teens who benefit most from courses and extracurricular activities that provide clear training for a career, and indeed, 81 percent of the survey respondents said they would have benefited from more connections between the worlds of school and work.


The Research Behind Obama's State of the Union High-School Dropout Proposal

By Dana Goldstein from SLATE |


President Barack Obama shakes hands with students at Thomas Jefferson High School on Sept. 16, 2011. | Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, at 4:45 PM ET  ::  In the education section of his State of the Union address last night, President Obama floated a policy idea that left a lot of people—including some of us immersed in the school reform debate—scratching our heads. Students should be required by law to attend school either until they graduate or turn 18, Obama said, because “we … know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.”

Currently, 30 states allow students to drop out of high school at either 16 or 17, so this would represent a significant change—one the president actually has no power to enforce, since state law governs most of the variables in education policy, including the ages of compulsory schooling. Nevertheless, Obama’s remarks could act as an agenda-setter. The proposal reflects the thinking of Alan Kreuger, a Princeton economist and chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. In 1990, Kreuger co-authored a study that found that because of variations in the ages when children enter school—some kids turn 5 the January before they begin kindergarten, while others turn 5 that October—students become eligible to drop out at different phases of their educations. The paper concluded that many potential dropouts stick out their junior or senior years of high school only because they have yet to reach the age at which they are legally allowed to leave school, and that such students eventually go on to earn somewhat higher wages than “early birthday” dropouts who were able to leave school as sophomores, for example.

In 2003, another economist, Philip Oreopoulos of the University of Toronto, studied the long-term consequences of leaving high school early across three countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Oreopoulos found that an additional year of high school—even if the student doesn’t ever earn a diploma—can double a worker’s maximum annual wage.

If every state responded to these findings by raising the compulsory schooling age to 18, there would inevitably be unintended consequences to address. Some low-income schools would be challenged by an influx of would-be dropouts remaining in the classroom. Schools should be doing more not just to warehouse at-risk students, but to provide them with engaging curricula that are relevant to their lives; that’s why, as I’ve written elsewhere, it makes sense to offer teenagers compelling career and technical education programs. This is especially important in light of what we know about dropouts: A 2006 survey from the Gates Foundation found that 81 percent wish their schools had done more to connect them to the world of work.

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