In his State of the Union address, the president came out in favor of warehousing youngsters for longer than ever. We know, insisted Obama, "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."
Most states now allow students to drop out at 16 or 17. As a general rule, though, quitting high school restricts your options and reduces your income. Few adults would advise a youngster to leave without a diploma.
But general rules don't apply in all cases. The question here is not whether most students are better off finishing high school; it's whether the kids who otherwise would drop out are better off being forced to finish high school.
That's a very different question. Candidates who stay in the presidential race past April are far more likely to get the nomination than candidates who give up in January. But Rick Perry wasn't going to win even if he had stayed in till Christmas. If you're headed in the wrong direction, it doesn't help to keep going.
Why Obama floated the idea, with minimal explanation, is an open question. But the National Education Association, the country's biggest teachers union, has been pushing it. If you were cynical, you might think the union likes the proposal because it would mean more kids in school, which would mean more jobs for teachers, and that Obama likes it because the NEA endorsed him.
But even if their motives are pristine, it doesn't mean they are sound. The problem is that the youngsters who are most likely to drop out are the ones who are least likely to learn if they stay.
If they are 1) struggling to pass, 2) unwilling to apply themselves, 3) chronically tardy and absent or 4) simply not very bright, they won't learn much from being locked in a cell -- I mean a classroom -- for two extra years.
James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago who specializes in education, is skeptical of the proposal. At the college level, he told me, "The returns to people who are not very able or not very motivated are typically quite low." There is evidence that kids may get some benefit from being required to stay in high school until 16 instead of 15, he says, but "it's a weak reed to lean on."
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