Last night's State of the Union address, like all these things, will thankfully soon be as forgotten as the next pledge to create a competitiveness council, a war against cellulite, or what-have-you.
But before we forget, let me suggest the absolute dumbest idea (loosely speaking) Barack Obama floated last night was the idea that anything in our sick, sad world would be made better by forcing kids who are bored or uninterested in high school to stay there "until they graduate or turn 18":
We also know that when students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state—every state—requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. (Applause.)
Come on, really. Don't get schooled again, 'Bama!
There's no question that kids who don't graduate high school don't fare well in the world. There's similarly little question that turning schools into even-more obvious holding pens for such kids will accomplish nothing more than driving down whatever education may still happen inside the brick buildings we misidentify as schools.
You needn't be a Michel Foucault fan to agree that K-12 schools and prisons in the developed world share a disturbing number of features. First and foremost, that they are mandatory. And that they strive to be "total institutions" that oversee every aspect of their members (indeed, schools seek greater and greater control over kids' and parents' choices when it comes soda pop and BMI, fer chrissakes). [Update: For another school-prison overlap, read this story about the "grade D" slop served in both places.]
Let's leave aside whether the president of the United States should be so far into the weeds on education standards, which has traditionally been more of a local and state issue. Not long ago, presidents use to bitch and moan about "social promotion," about just passing kids through the system because it's easier than telling that they really need to up their game. Now, Obama is scraping the veneer away from the reality that schools are anything other than tools of social control, a way of keeping an unruly population off the streets. Though he certainly didn't intend to do that, maybe we should thank him for laying bare the essential function of schools.
Sadly, he didn't offer up any path to making schools more interesting to the kids. Here's what he said on that score:
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. (Applause.) And 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. That's a bargain worth making. (Applause.)
This is National School Choice Week, but the only K-12 choice Obama seems interesting in offering is to give schools more money ("resources") to keep "good" teachers around and even "reward" (pay more) the "best ones." That's a great choice, indeed, for educrats: You get more money to pay people and you get exemptions ("flexibility") from having to show results. Does anyone seriously think that will lead to the replacement of teachers who "just aren't helping kids learn?" We been there and done all that, with nothing to show but smaller class sizes, bigger budgets, and worse test scores.
Obama didn't mention the one thing that might make kids more interested in staying in school voluntarily: Letting them and their parents choose among competing alternatives where they want to go. It works pretty damn well in every other aspect of our lives—including higher education—and as Reason's Lisa Snell will tell you, it works pretty damn well in the school districts that are experimenting with it.
Indeed, I can only imagine that if Obama's own kids were trapped inside a traditional Washington, D.C. public school (where results are terrible despite spending upwards of $20,000 per pupil), he wouldn't be skylarking about hiring teachers with "creativity and passion." He'd be screaming bloody murder to get his kids out of a broken system and into one where he and the missus had some say over where his kids were warehoused for 18 years.
Bonus Flashback Video: How Obama Killed a Popular Voucher Program in DC: