Watch CBSN Live

Obama Defends "Race to the Top" Education Initiative

US President Barack Obama speaks on education reform at the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, July 29, 2010. SAUL LOEB

WASHINGTON (CBS) - While acknowledging criticism of his "Race to the Top" education initiative, President Obama was emphatic in saying he's sticking to it.

"I'll continue to fight for "Race to the Top" with everything I've got," vowed the president, appearing before the National Urban League Centennial Convention Thursday.

He said he'll even use his veto power to prevent Congress from "watering it down."

In what the White House billed as a "major speech" on education reform, Mr. Obama called "Race to the Top" "the single most ambitious, meaningful education effort we've attempted in this country in generations."

Unveiled by Mr. Obama a couple of months after taking office, "Race to the Top" calls for:

  • setting rigorous learning standards in schools
  • attracting and keeping top teachers
  • testing students to evaluate school and teacher performance
  • taking innovative steps fix problem schools

Federal grants are awarded to states whose educational systems meet the program's criteria.

But in a report this week, the National Urban League was critical of the initiative, charging that few black and even fewer Latino students are benefiting from the program.

In his speech, Mr. Obama rejected the criticism.

"The charge that 'Race to the Top' isn't targeted at those young people most in need is absolutely false," he declared, "because lifting up quality for all our children -- black, white, Hispanic -- that is the central premise of 'Race to the Top.'"

Mr. Obama also said critics are "missing the point" if they see "Race to the Top" as a way to blame or punish teachers.

"My sister is a teacher," he said. "I'm here because of great teachers. The whole premise of 'Race to the Top' is that teachers are the single most important factor in a child's education from the moment they step into the classroom."

He continued: "Our goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers; our goal is accountability. It's to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be, and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike."

The National Urban League audience was friendly territory for Mr. Obama and he received a thunderous standing ovation on his arrival.

But he appeared to touch a nerve when he spoke of the need for more parental involvement in their kids' education.

There was nervous laughter among audience members when Mr. Obama cited some people who ask him, "why are you always talking about parental responsibility in front of black folks?"

"And I say, I talk about parent responsibility wherever I talk about education," said the president. Because he and Michelle "happen to be black parents," he said, "I may add a little oomph to it when I'm talking to black parents."

But he also said children themselves need to take more responsibility.

"It's not just parents. It's the children, too. Our kids need to understand nobody is going to hand them a future," the president said sternly.

He said "an education is not something you just tip your head and they pour it in your ear." Kids have got to want it, he argued, and claim heir future for themselves.

"And you can't make excuses," the president said.

"There are all kinds of reasons for our children to say, 'No, I can't.' But our job is to say to them, 'Yes, you can.' Yes, you can overcome. Yes, you can persevere. Yes, you can make what you will out of your lives," he said.

Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here:
View CBS News In