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.