The president spoke to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., and the speech was carried on the White House Web site and on ESPN.
"No matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it," President Obama told the students. "This isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country."
Listen to the full speech here:
The president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with about 40 students in the school library before the speech, and Mr. Obama answered questions from the students and told some personal stories.
"When I was your age," he said, according to Reuters, "I was a bit of a goof-off. My main goal was to get on the varsity basketball team and have fun." He also said that being raised by a single mother, without a father at home "forced me to grow up faster."
The speech had attracted controversy this week, as critics of the president accused him of trying to push a partisan agenda on students. They seized on accompanying educational materials that the White House had distributed, which asked students to think of "what they could do to help the president."
After the criticism, the White House sent out revised materials that asked students instead to write down their short-term and long-term goals.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also pointed out that Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had given similar back-to-school addresses.
Dismissing the controversy, Secretary Duncan told reporters, "The big problem with education in our country is that we focus on adult issues and adult drama."
Duncan added that it is important for a president to engage with the nation's young people and “challenge students to take personal responsibility for their own future”
And not all conservatives were critical of the speech.
"It is good to have the president of the United States say to young people across America, 'Stay in school, study and do your homework," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday.
Cecilia Martinez , 14, of Arlington, Va.,said she was proud the president came to her school. "I liked how he never gave up in his life. It shows me that I should never give up in mine," she said.
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---- Wire reports, with reporting by Kate Stanton