How Obama Is Making Real Progress on Education

President Obama greeted third and fourth graders at a Maryland elementary school last year. Jason Reed / Reuters-Corbis

My favorite part of the new documentary Waiting for Superman comes just after the audience learns that American students rank far below other advanced countries in math and science. Then, with footage of Jackass-style daredevils trying and failing to perform various ambitious stunts, we see that American teens do rate No. 1 in one area—self-confidence. Even when they're 12th or 18th or 21st in some academic category, they still think they're No. 1.

The sequence was simultaneously funny and pathetic, and it reminded me of a story President Obama told me when I was writing a book about his first year in office. In a meeting in Seoul, President Lee Myung-bak confided to Obama that his biggest problem in education was that South Korean parents were pressuring him to import more English teachers so their kids could learn English in first grade instead of having to wait until second grade. This is what we're up against in global competition, the president said. "And then I sit down with U.S. reporters, and the question they have for me, in Asia, is 'Have you read Sarah Palin's book?'?" At that point Obama shook his head and said, "True story. True story."

The good news, which should in-spire a little hope (though not the usual complacent overconfidence), is that the education-reform movement in the United States—the most critical social movement of our time—has made more progress in the last year than in the previous 10. The push for reform, which began with the 1983 government report "A Nation at Risk," had been stymied for years by what's sometimes known as "The Blob"—the collection of bureaucracies, school boards, and teachers' unions committed to protecting the failed status quo. But Obama is the first Democrat who was elected president without the early support of teachers' unions (they backed Hillary Clinton), and he has seized the opportunity. Only a fierce anticommunist like Nixon could go to communist China, and only a Democratic president like Obama can push through accountability measures that Democratic unions have resisted for years. Waiting for Superman (full disclosure: I appear in the film, directed by Davis Guggenheim) doesn't cover Obama, but it's a terrific primer on the political and institutional forces at work, as well as a heartbreaking human story. Critics are already saying that the film could do for accountability in education what Guggenheim's earlier documentary An Inconvenient Truth did for the climate-change debate.

Obama's engine of reform, Race to the Top, has been phenomenally successful in using a relatively small pot of money, $4.4 billion from the 2009 stimulus package, to leverage a huge amount of change in education. After decades of failed efforts to establish national standards, Education Secretary Arne Duncan hit on an ingenious solution. By letting governors take the lead in developing sensible "common core" standards, he neutralized the conservative argument about too much influence from Washington. Then he applied the hammer: the rules of the Race to the Top competition made it hard for states to win extra money if they didn't go along. Almost overnight, 37 states adopted national, er, common standards, which are critical to raising student performance.

Another requirement for getting the booty from Washington was that states lift their caps on the number of public charter schools allowed. Under pressure from teachers' unions, many states had shackled charters, which operate outside the archaic contracts that make it nearly impossible to have longer school days, fire bad teachers, or turn around failing schools. It's true that there are plenty of lousy charter schools that bring down the averages, but today's renewed attacks on charters ignore the fact that the vast majority of the best-performing schools in at-risk communities are charters. After more than a decade of reform, we now know what works in closing the achievement gap. Duncan needs more help from Congress in replicating successful models and closing "dropout factories."

The key to saving kids and thus the future of the country is to foster good teaching. Perhaps the most important component of Race to the Top is the requirement that student performance be used as a partial factor in teacher evaluation. Instead of comparing schools—the apples-and-oranges centerpiece of President Bush's unpopular No Child Left Behind program—Duncan aims to find out whether Johnny actually learned anything over the course of the year. It's hard to believe, but until recently these so-called value-added data hadn't even been collected. Without resolving the thorny issue of who gets the information on teacher effectiveness (administrators or parents, too?), Washington is incentivizing states to at least focus on better teaching.

All this reform has kicked off a family feud within the Democratic Party, and the forces of the status quo are fighting back. When a few House Democrats tried to gut Race to the Top, Obama issued a veto threat. Now Republicans want to prevent White House efforts to replicate the success of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone. (It was the charismatic Canada who explains in the film that he waited in vain for Superman to save him as a kid.) For the first time ever, substantial numbers of Democrats back real reform, though important reformers like Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia face tough campaigns this fall.

The two major teachers' unions have diverged recently. The American Federation of Teachers, headed by Randi Weingarten, even helped enact a teacher- tenure-reform bill in Colorado that's a national model. By contrast, the hidebound Nation-al Education Association is still bitterly opposed to any accountability. Obama insists that education policy center on what's good for students, not adult interest groups. Through that lens, everything clarifies.

The national conversation is still more focused on diversions like Sarah Palin's antics than strengthening our education system and, by extension, our economy and collective future. When we look up in the sky, Superman isn't coming. But a social movement "more powerful than a locomotive" is headed down the tracks, if only we'll hop aboard.