''Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age," said Gates, whose philanthropic foundation has committed nearly $1 billion to the challenge of improving high schools. ''Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year."
The technology leader provided the keynote for a weekend devoted to highlighting the problem of dropout rates among high school students and the schools' failure to give students adequate preparation for college and to developing an agenda for action in the states.
The National Education Summit on High Schools is cosponsored by the National Governors Association and Achieve Inc., a partnership created by the governors and the business community aimed at increasing standards and accountability in education.
It marks the fifth education summit hosted by the governors, including their 1989 session that helped generate support for higher standards and greater accountability, particularly in elementary education. That movement ultimately gave rise to President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.
Bush has targeted high schools for change as part of his second-term initiative. Although there is not unanimous support for his proposal among the governors, the attention that he and the state chief executives are focusing on the problem could spur action across the country to reverse trends that government and business leaders say threaten the United States as the preeminent economic power in the world.
Gates and other speakers enumerated a list of alarming statistics to back up their argument that high schools are failing students, particularly low-income or minority children. The United States ranks 16th among 20 developed nations in the percentage of students who complete high school and 14th among the top 20 in college graduation rates.
Just 18 of 100 students entering high school go on to complete their college degree within six years of starting college, and the nation has slipped from first to fifth internationally in the percentage of young people who hold a college degree.
Math and science education poses a particular challenge, as American students gradually slip behind the rest of the world between the fourth and 12th grades, starting among the top ranks and finishing near the bottom of industrialized nations.
''We are united in our conviction that high schools must be targeted for comprehensive reform and sustained change, and we believe that work begins today," said Governor Mark R. Warner of Virginia, a Democrat, the governors' association chairman, who spearheaded the weekend summit.
Gates said the best educated young people in the United States are still among the best educated in the world, but he said millions of students in disadvantaged school districts, whether urban or rural, are falling behind because of failed schools.