03/11/2009 06:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Smart Kid Speaks Up!

Like the shy smart kid in school who knows the answers but keeps quiet for fear of being taunted, Candidate Obama instinctively knew the best answers to improving our nation's broken school system, but avoided calling them out for fear of antagonizing the powerful education establishment, especially the unions. Yesterday, fifty days after taking the oath of office, President Obama finally raised his hand.

In his first education policy address, delivered at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama outlined an ambitious and truly reform-oriented education plan. The details of his plan include all three of the policies that the Strong American Schools' ED in '08 campaign advocated for during and after the campaign.

Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Obama straddled the divide between education reformer and defender of the status quo. Like so many Democrats, he needed to appeal to the education union bullies sitting in the back of the room. Most reformers believed, and were cautiously optimistic, that if elected Obama would prove that he had the right answers all along.

Yesterday's speech showed he did have the answers. As Strong American Schools (SAS) had urged during the campaign, and as my partner, former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, has stated repeatedly, President Obama said the need for higher standards is directly related to America's lagging international competitiveness. Obama spoke about the peril of an education system with 50 different standards, eight of which are so low that they align with the bottom 40 percent of the world. "That's why I'm calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lowering standards -- it's tougher, clearer standards."

President Obama even reminded the audience that he had already slipped one past the bullies with a stimulus package provision that allocates $5 billion to state incentive and innovation grants; Secretary Duncan, the other smart kid in the class, has made it clear that he will use that money to help states raise their academic standards.

In the speech, President Obama also unveiled a new teacher quality initiative that will provide mentoring and performance pay for teachers in over 150 school districts. Although he did not describe the details of the program, the President did say that "good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement."

During the campaign, this was one issue that Candidate Obama worried would cause friction among his constituents--he was famously booed at the 2007 NEA convention for muttering the words "merit pay". To avoid it, he sidestepped the notion that teacher bonuses should be linked to student achievement. For its part, SAS has criticized watered down performance pay plans that ignore fundamental indicators like student achievement. Now, with the security of his election, President Obama seems intent on tackling this issue head on. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

President Obama specifically lauded the South Carolina Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which SAS has repeatedly pointed to as a model of an effective performance pay system. The president also supports rewarding teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools and teach hard-to-staff subjects. Finally, he recognized the urgent need to infuse new blood into the teaching profession: "And so today, I'm calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms."

The president then picked up on a theme likely to earn him the enmity of school kids everywhere, at least until they're working adults: Extended Learning Time. President Obama echoed a SAS message about the need to get away from the archaic school calendar and to build more time into the school day. "That's why I'm calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -- whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it." Like SAS, the President compared the U.S. school calendar to South Korea's, calculating that Americans spend a month less in school, which has real economic consequences.

The president's language -- end the use of "off-the-shelf" student testing, "We have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream." - strongly echoes the SAS reform playbook.

The plan outlined by the President outlines all the right answers and display an uncommon form of leadership. His commitment to improving our schools is an example of leadership that rises above ideology and partisanship and squarely places the interest of children above that of the adults who work and run our nation's schools. It is a substantial step forward in the ongoing fight to improve our nation's schools. And it's a very good showing from the shy student we always thought might just have the right answers if only he had the courage to speak up.