Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Bad Education Ideas

President Obama announced in his State of the Union address that no one should be allowed to drop out from high school under the age of eighteen. Obama's desire to raise graduation rates is laudable. But simply raising the age limit is not. In fact, it's a dumb idea.

Whether students drop out at age sixteen or age eighteen is largely immaterial. The truth is that teachers shouldn't be forced to try and teach students who don't want to be taught. Instead, they pose a disruptive presence inside public schools. Obama is proposing to identify the schools with the highest dropout rates, close them and then transfer students to better districts. But is that simple a recipe for adding troublemakers to districts that are performing well? Yes, the administration should work to improve schools and lower dropout rates. But don't try to enforce it by executive fiat, which is what raising the dropout age would represent. You can't legislate your way to better results. Schools have to produce them.

The other idea that the Obama administration proposes is even worse. Far worse. It is embracing high technology as a panacea for teaching students. In a scorching column in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik points out that the administration is peddling moonshine. U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan is pushing for a major infusion of iPads into school classrooms. Who's eager for this to happen? Apple computers, naturally. It stands to make big bucks. The claim is that iPads are studier than textbooks, can be updated and are cheaper in the long run. Baloney, says Hiltzik. For one thing, you can drop a textbook, but an iPad? It's finished.

Most important: there's no compelling evidence that technology, in any form, has substantially aided basic learning. On the contrary, the studies that Hiltzik cites suggest that it can retard it. Yet Duncan, together with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, is pushing for high-tech solutions.

Hiltzik, notes,

Does Duncan ever read his own agency's material? In 2009, the Education Department released a study of whether math and reading software helped student achievement in first, fourth, and sixth grades, based on testing in hundreds of classrooms. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was "not statistically different from zero." In sixth-grade math, students who used software got lower test scores—and the effect got significantly worse in the second year of use.

The idea that technology can substitute for old-fashioned teachers has been around for decades. And it's always been wrong. Good teaching costs money. There are no shortcuts. Students need to read books. Did Gibbon need an iPad? According to Hiltzik,

Almost every generation has been subjected in its formative years to some "groundbreaking" pedagogical technology. In the '60s and '70s, "instructional TV was going to revolutionize everything," recalls Thomas C. Reeves, an instructional technology expert at the University of Georgia. "But the notion that a good teacher would be just as effective on videotape is not the case."

The Obama administration is not the first White House to fall prey to the malarkey that pervades the education establishment. It is simply the latest. But that's no excuse. The administration, like its predecessors, is tying education to competitiveness. No doubt America has to improve. But Obama should educate himself more about education before trying to sell the American public a bill of goods.