By David Brooks, Syndicated columnist
A few weeks ago, "Saturday Night Live" teased President Barack Obama for delivering great speeches but not actually bringing change. There's at least one area where that jibe is unfair: education.
When Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to office, they created a $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. The idea was to use money to leverage change. The administration would put a pile of federal money on the table and award it to a few states that most aggressively embraced reform.
Their ideas were good, and their speeches were beautiful. But that was never the problem. The real challenge was going to be standing up to the teachers' unions and the other groups that have undermined nearly every other reform effort.
The real questions were these: Would the administration water down their reform criteria in the face of political pressure? Would the Race to the Top money end up getting doled out like any other federal spending program, and thus end up subsidizing the status quo? Would the administration hold the line and demand real reform in exchange for the money?
There were many reasons to be skeptical. At the behest of the teachers' unions, the Democrats had just shut down a successful District of Columbia voucher program. Moreover, state legislatures around the country were moving backward. They were passing laws prohibiting schools from using student performance as a criterion in setting teacher pay.
But, so far, those fears are unjustified. The news is good. In fact, it's very good. Over the past few days I've spoken to people ranging from Bill Gates to Jeb Bush and various education reformers. They are all impressed by how gritty and effective the Obama administration has been in holding the line and inciting real education reform.
Over the summer, the Department of Education indicated that most states would not qualify for Race to the Top money. Now states across the country are changing their laws: California, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee, among others.
It's not only the promise of money that is motivating change. There seems to be a status contest as states compete to prove they, too, can meet the criteria. Governors who have been bragging about how great their schools are don't want to be left off the list.
These changes mean that states are raising their caps on the number of charter schools. When charters got going, there was a "let a thousand flowers bloom" mentality that sometimes led to bad schools. Now reformers know more about how to build charters and the research is showing solid results. Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University recently concluded a rigorous study of New York's charter schools and found that they substantially narrowed the achievement gap between suburban and inner-city students.
The changes also will mean student performance will increasingly be a factor in how much teachers get paid and whether they keep their jobs. There is no consensus on exactly how to do this, but there is clear evidence that good teachers produce consistently better student test scores, and that teachers who do not need to be identified and counseled. Cracking the barrier that has been erected between student outcomes and teacher pay would be a huge gain.
Duncan even seems to have made some progress in persuading the unions that they can't just stonewall, they have to get involved in the reform process. The American Federation of Teachers recently announced innovation grants for performance-pay ideas. The New Haven school district has just completed a new teacher contract, with union support, that includes many of the best reform ideas.
There are still many places where the unions are dogmatically trying to keep bad teachers in the classrooms. But if implemented well, the New Haven contract could be a sign of perestroika even within the education establishment.
"I've been deeply disturbed by a lot that's going on in Washington," Jeb Bush said on Thursday, "but this is not one of them. President Obama has been supporting a reform secretary, and this is deserving of Republican support." Bush's sentiment is echoed across the spectrum, from Newt Gingrich to Al Sharpton.
Over the next months, there will be more efforts to water down reform. Some groups are offering to get behind health-care reform in exchange for gutting education reform. Politicians from both parties are going to lobby fiercely to ensure that their state gets money, regardless of the merits. So will governors who figure they're going to lose out in the award process.
But Obama understood from the start that this would only work if the awards remain fiercely competitive. He has not wavered. We're not close to reaching the educational Promised Land, but we may be at the start of what Rahm Emanuel calls The Quiet Revolution.
David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.