It was an excellent message delivered by the perfect messenger.
The achievement gap between white kids and low-income minority kids is the biggest challenge facing schools. Too many of the latter see no reason to put out an effort.
So Tuesday they saw a black student-body president introduce a black president of the United States of America. He told them that there is value in education, that if they work hard, it can take them anywhere, including the White House.
Obama is a badly needed male role model in a culture that relies far too heavily on sports stars to fill that role.
That makes the symbolic value of his speech incalculable.
But the bigger picture from a policy standpoint is whether Obama does what is required to provide these kids the opportunity to succeed.
That is the real news. That is what commentators should be commenting about.
Obama is taking education reform into territory never before breached by a Democrat. And in doing so he is taking on one of the party's most important interest groups — the teachers unions.
He began by picking as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former head of Chicago public schools.
Duncan supported charter schools. He closed failing schools, invoking the wrath of communities and teachers unions. He supported merit pay for teachers and holding them accountable for their students' progress.
Obama has put his administration on a collision course with teachers unions, which have long had a stranglehold on Democratic school policies. The reason for this can be found in a July report by the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.
It wrote that teacher-union opposition to school reforms has "posed a barrier" to educating disadvantaged students and "led to calcified systems in which talented people are deterred from applying or staying as teachers because they believe their skills will not be recognized or rewarded."
A business model that lacks accountability, that lacks incentives for hard work and initiative, that protects bad workers and that bases pay on longevity rather than performance is a system doomed to fail whether you are making cars or educating kids.
The question now becomes whether Obama and Duncan can balance the need for reform with the politics of mollifying the unions. And if they can't, will they push the reforms anyway?
The first chasm is forming over stimulus money earmarked for education. This is the Race to the Top fund, in which states will compete for money based on how they implement education reforms. These include adopting tough academic standards, evaluating teachers on performance, dispersing quality teachers to low-performing schools, and increasing the number of quality charter schools.
This means a continued reliance on standardized testing as a tool to measure success.
The National Education Association, a national teachers union, harshly attacked Race to the Top.
The reason is obvious. It encourages states to adopt the same kinds of accountability reforms Florida has been implementing for 10 years, and which gives us a leg up in getting the money.
States like California, meanwhile, may find access to the money a bit harder. In a letter to USA Today, a union leader there called Duncan's reforms "fads and opportunistic politics."
But California shows the folly of letting the union run the show. California teachers rank at or near the top in national pay scales, but lag even Florida in national math and reading scores.
But a state law in California forbids linking test scores with teacher evaluations.
In June, Duncan said, "In California, they have 300,000 teachers. If you took the top 10 percent, they have 30,000 of the best teachers in the world. If you took the bottom 10 percent, they have 30,000 teachers that should probably find another profession, yet no one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category."
In an appearance Sunday on Face the Nation, Duncan was conciliatory to unions but did not back down for his support of badly needed reforms.
The question now becomes whether the administration can win over more enlightened union leaders and stand up to mounting pressure from the archaic ones.
This is the defining battle for the future of public education.
Now that the speech hysteria has subsided, we can talk about something that really is important.
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun