The president, and just as importantly, business wants improvement now. Jon Marcus reports.
President Bill Clinton has told a summit of school governors to fire incompetent teachers and hold schools more accountable.
"This is one area where we need a revolution of rising expectations," he said. "Once you have high standards and high expectations, there are unlimited things that can be done."
The two-day education summit, co-sponsored by business and held in New York, was dominated by concerns about international economic competition.
America's governors agreed to set tough new academic standards and introduce tests within the next two years to measure students' progress.
"By setting standards for our schools, our students will graduate with the skills they need to succeed," said Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, chairman of the National Governors Association. "They will know how to write, how to read and how to compute, as well as how to comprehend. They will be able to command good jobs with good wages."
In a six-page manifesto, the governors agreed to make such standards comparable to those of the US's economic rivals. After unexpectedly contentious negotiations, they also pledged that each state's progress would be monitored by agencies independent of the government, keeping control of education at the local levels as conservatives demanded.
"I don't want it to be some super school board that says if you want to put standards in, you have to go through us," said Wayne Allen, chairman of Phillips Petroleum.
Business leaders such as Mr Allen said they cannot find qualified employees and are spending too much money on re-training.
"I don't think the education community can continue to ignore what business says, it is the ultimate customer," said Keith Poston, a spokesman for the National Alliance of Business. Corporate officials also warned the governors they would consider academic standards and student performance when deciding whether to buildor expand in any of the 50 states.
Executives are not the only ones unhappy with education. A poll taken on the eve of the summit by the national magazine US News World Report found that more than 60 per cent of Americans think schools are only fair, poor or very poor. Three-quarters of the 1,000 people surveyed favoured tougher standards and two-thirds thought the standards should be written at the state or local level.
And although the majority of governors and executives do not want Washington's help on this issue, President Clinton came to the summit to offer his advice anyway.