U.S. President Barack Obama has unveiled the first part of his plan to reform the country's schools. The initial steps would affect all levels of education.
The president is proposing an overhaul of the U.S. education system that includes extra pay for good teachers, longer school days and years for students, and higher standards in schools across the country.
The president took his case for education reform to a group of Hispanic business leaders, who greeted him with the Spanish version of his campaign slogan, "Yes We Can," "Si se puede! Si se puede!"
Mr. Obama made his first major speech on education before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. New government statistics show that one-fifth of U.S. primary school students are of Latin American origin.
The president says it is unacceptable that American students post mediocre results on international rankings, despite having one of the world's best-financed school systems.
"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us," he said.
The president says his reform agenda would improve education at all levels, from pre-school programs to universities.
While some critics say Mr. Obama should focus exclusively on the nation's economic crisis, he says the economy cannot be revived without better schools.
"Our curriculum for eighth-graders is two full years behind top-performing countries," he said. "That is a prescription for economic decline, and I refuse to accept that America's children cannot rise to this challenge. They can, and they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time."
Mr. Obama said he wants to reduce the number of students who do not finish high school. U.S. Education Department statistics show that 22 percent of Hispanic students drop out of school, far more than any other major U.S. ethnic group.
"To any student who is watching, I say this: Do not even think about dropping out of school. Do not even think about it," he said. "As I said a couple of weeks ago, dropping out is quitting on yourself, it is quitting on your country, and it is not an option, not any more."
Mr. Obama did not propose any new spending for education, but his $787 billion economic recovery package includes grants to local school districts and money for modernizing schools.