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Obama to Nation’s Students: Aim for College, and Innovate

By Alyson Klein — September 28, 2011 2 min read
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President Obama appeared at a District of Columbia public school Wednesday and delivered a straightforward—and apolitical—message: Work hard, and set your sights on college. Your country needs your help, and your ideas.

In the third “back-to-school speech” of his presidency, Obama delivered an address at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. Many schools around the country were also expected to tune in.

This year’s remarks were pretty innocuous. They focused on urging students to push themselves academically and set high goals, namely pursuing education or postsecondary training after high school, and finishing those studies.

“If that means college for you, just getting into college isn’t enough,” Obama said. “You’ve got to graduate. ... Our country used to have the world’s highest proportion of of young people with a college degree. We now rank 16th. That’s not good enough. We need your generation to bring us back to the top.”

Obama alluded to the nation’s economic struggles, saying that he suspected many students might be going through tough times at home, which had forced them to take jobs, or forced their parents to take on extra shifts at work.

He also spent part of his speech praising teachers, a group whose support could prove crucial to Obama’s re-election chances next year. Some teachers have been critical of Obama’s policies, particularly those supporting tying teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement. The president described the nation’s teachers as selfless workers motivated by the desire to help students.

“They don’t do it for the fancy office or the big salary,” Obama said, in his prepared remarks. “They do it for you. They live for those moments when something clicks, when you amaze them with your intellect and they see the kind of person you can become.”

Two years ago, the Obama administration came under a storm of criticism when the U.S. Department of Education released a series of recommended classroom activities for schools.Some conservatives said those activities seemed aimed at encouraging students and teachers to promote the president’s policy agenda.

In this year’s speech, Obama told students that by pursuing a two- or four-year college degree, they’d increase their chances of getting a good job—and of producing the kind of innovation that would help the country.

Some students are apparently starting that work early. Obama cited the example of a 17-year-old from St. Louis who worked with his sister to launch a community service web site for young people. And a 16-year-old from Texas, who has worked on a process that uses light to kill cancer sells, got a plug from Obama.

“Your country is depending on you,” the president said. “So set your sights high.”

Photo: President Barack Obama waves to students after delivering his 2011 back-to school speech at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington D.C. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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