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: For more on the economic research behind Obama’s proposal on raising the age of compulsory schooling, click here.