updated 7/29/2010 12:28:05 PM ET 2010-07-29T16:28:05

Challenging civil rights organizations and teacher unions that have criticized his education policies, President Barack Obama said Thursday that minority students have the most to gain from overhauling the nation's schools.

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"We have an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind," Obama told the centennial convention of the National Urban League.

The Urban League has been a vocal critic of Obama's education policies, most notably the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" program that awards grants to states based on their plans for innovative education reforms.

A report released earlier this week by eight civil rights groups, including the Urban League, said federal data shows that just 3 percent of the nation's black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students are affected by the first round of the administration's "Race to the Top" competition.

Obama pushed back Thursday, arguing that minority students are the ones who have been hurt the most by the status quo.

Obama's reforms have also drawn criticism from education advocates, including prominent teachers' unions like the American Federation of Teachers, who have argued that the reforms set unfair standards for teacher performance.

Obama said the goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers, but to create a culture of accountability. He pinned some of the criticism on a resistance to change.

"We get comfortable with the status quo even when the status quo isn't good," he said. "When you try to shake things up, sometimes people aren't happy."

'Right thing to do'
Obama laid the groundwork for what he called "an honest conversation" about education with comments on several recent developments that were designed as sweeteners for his mostly minority audience.

For instance, he said his goal with his domestic agenda, including the economy, health care and other priorities, is to create "an economy that lifts all Americans — not just some, but all." That comment earned him significant applause and pleased murmurs in the room.

The president also said he very much looks forward to signing a bill recently passed by Congress to reduce the disparities between mandatory crack and powder cocaine sentences. The matter has been a longtime thorn for the black community, as the quarter-century-old law that Congress changed has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the powder form of the drug.

"We got it done," Obama said. "It's the right thing to do."

And he forthrightly addressed the racial firestorm over the recent ouster of a black Agriculture Department official. He said the forced resignation of Shirley Sherrod "marked both the challenges we face and the progress we've made."

"She deserves better than what happened last week," Obama said.

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Video: Obama defends 'Race to the Top'

  1. Transcript of: Obama defends 'Race to the Top'

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Also today, President Obama made a high-profile defense of his approach to improving public education. It's called Race To the Top . It's a big and revolutionary approach that's been controversial, even among many of his own allies. And as our White House correspondent Savannah Guthrie reports, his speech about schools was also about race.

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE reporting: Though he was among friends before one of the nation's largest civil rights organizations today, the president also encountered foes.

    President BARACK OBAMA: When you try to shake things up, some people aren't happy.

    GUTHRIE: The National Urban League is among seven civil rights groups this week to blast the president's signature education initiative Race To the Top . The program awards federal funding to schools based on a competition among states that embrace reform, such as tying teacher evaluations to student performance, adopting common student achievement standards and encouraging charter schools . But civil rights groups worry Race To the Top leaves minority students at the bottom. Nineteen states were announced this week as finalists in the latest round of competition for federal funds, but critics say in the two states to actually win grants so far, only 3 percent of the nation's black students are represented.

    Pres. OBAMA: Let me tell you, what's not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo, because lifting up quality for all our children -- black, white, Hispanic -- that is the central premise of Race To the Top .

    GUTHRIE: Before the predominantly African-American audience today, the issue of race was perhaps inevitable.

    Pres. OBAMA: She deserves better than what happened last week.

    GUTHRIE: The president made his most extensive comments yet about Shirley Sherrod , the USDA official his administration fired in haste after selectively edited clips surfaced on a conservative Web site portraying her as a racist. The president said today a national conversation on race is necessary.

    Pres. OBAMA: A discussion that needs to take place not on cable TV , not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables.

    GUTHRIE: Sherrod herself said today the nation, including its first African-American president, still has much to learn.

    Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD: We have to make sure they understand the history so that they can do a better job in the positions that they have.

    GUTHRIE: The issue of race even followed the president to the set of ABC 's daytime talk show " The View ," where he was asked why he doesn't refer to himself as bi-racial.

    Pres. OBAMA: And the interesting thing about the African-American experience in this country is that we are sort of a mongrel people.

    Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG: Mm-hmm.

    Pres. OBAMA: I mean, we're all kind of mixed up.

    GUTHRIE: Well, as for Shirley Sherrod , she said today she's still thinking about that job offer from the administration, but she said she definitely plans to sue Andrew Breitbart , the conservative blogger who first posted

    excerpts of her speech. Brian: Savannah , thanks for all that. Savannah Guthrie , our White House

    WILLIAMS:

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