Obama spoke yesterday on education, specifically about the problem of getting kids to complete high school. I am, of course, interested in seeing how his critics will attack his claim that kids should stay in school so they can get better jobs and contribute more to the social good. I assume that since the public schools are just that, public, he will be attacked for endorsing a national socialist plan of education.
Rather than get into the politics of the matter, my main concern is with considering his claims about the alleged negative impact of not completing highschool.
Obama noted that people who do not finish highschool make less money than graduates, are more likely to be unemployed and are more likely to engage in undesirabe behavior, such as commiting crimes. His proposed solution is to take steps to make it more likely that children will finish school.
The general line of reasoning behind this seems to be that since the problems he mentioned are associated with a failure to graduate, it follows that the failure to graduate is the cause. The obvious solution is to see to it that kids graduate.
I do agree that a failure to graduate does cause various problems and I am for taking steps to make it more likely that kids will graduate (and do so with a proper education). However, it is important to carefully consider the causality of the situation.
It is tempting to infer that the students who do not graduate suffer the problems they suffer from (such as lower employment) because they did not graduate. In many cases, this is no doubt the proper inference. However, it is also worth considering that the failure to graduate and the problems mentioned above stem from the same causal root. That is, the failure to graduate and the other problem might very well be effects caused by some other factor.
To use an analogy, suppose a person developed a sore throat and then had a fever. If he inferred that the sore throat caused the fever, then this would be too quick. He should consider that a third factor (such as a virus) caused them both.
So, when facing the graduation problem we should consider that there might be cases in which the falure to graduate is an effect rather than a primary cause. The reason why this is important is that addressing how to get people to graduate can be a rather different matter than addressing what causes people to not be succesful in life.