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STATE OF THE UNION: Obama Calls for Mandatory School Attendance Until Age Eighteen, Focuses on Importance of Education for “Jobs of Tomorrow”

“When students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.”

During his State of the Union address on January 24, President Obama stressed the importance of education in driving the U.S. economy and called on states to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.

“When students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” Obama said.

The proposal has received a great deal of attention in education circles, with some believing that keeping students in school longer is a good thing while others think that keeping disinterested students in school longer could disrupt learning for others.

“I will concede that having the federal government decree this, that’s going to stick hard with some people,” Alliance President Bob Wise told the New York Times. “But with almost one-third of the nation’s students dropping out of high school, we have an economic crisis and we need to be sending a stronger message about the importance of education.”

However, Wise also believes that simply raising the dropout age is not enough. “Decree doesn’t equal diploma,” he said on the Alliance’s Facebook page. “Raising the dropout age to eighteen will keep students in school—that’s the first step. The second step is keeping students engaged.”

The New York Times article cited research finding that higher dropout ages improve not only graduation rates but entrance to higher education and career outcomes. Additionally, Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, finds in a 2010 report that of the six states that increased the compulsory school age from 2002 to 2008, two—Illinois and South Dakota—experienced increases in their graduation rates, and one, Nevada, had a decline. “It’s symbolically and strategically important to raise the age to eighteen, but it’s not the magical thing that in itself will keep kids in school,” Dr. Balfanz said in the article.

In Illinois, local educators are asking whether increases in a state’s mandatory school age would be accompanied by increased funding to combat school truancy.

“It’s not a bad idea; the kids probably should be in school until they’re eighteen. But how are we going to ensure that that happens?” Bob Ingraffia, executive director of the regional education office for northern Cook County asked in a Chicago Tribune article. “We can’t ensure now that they stay in until they’re seventeen.”

Elsewhere in his State of the Union address, Obama called for better preparing workers for available jobs in science and technology, noting that business leaders tell him that they can’t find workers with the right skills. “That’s inexcusable,” Obama said. “And we know how to fix it.” He called for a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job and praised partnerships between companies and community colleges that were already up and running.

But Obama stressed that the commitment to skills and education has to start earlier to prepare individuals for the jobs of tomorrow. He called for resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones. In return, schools would be given the flexibility to replace teachers who are not helping kids learn.

Although he did not mention either directly, Obama referenced Race to the Top and the common core state standards that have been adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia. “For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning.”

To help tackle soaring college tuitions, Obama called on Congress to extend the tuition tax credit and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years. He also asked states to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets and called on colleges and universities to keep costs down by redesigning courses to help students finish more quickly and make better use of technology.

As he has done in recent years, Obama asked for a plan that would provide a path to citizenship for individuals who want to “staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country.” He specifically mentioned students who came to the United States as small children and want to go to college, as well as individuals who came to the United States to study business, science, and engineering, but are sent home as soon as they get their degrees to “invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.”

Although he did not directly mention a revamp of the No Child Left Behind Act, Obama did discuss more flexibility for states and changes to testing.

Watch enhanced video of the State of the Union address with data and graphics.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.