In order for U.S. to be first in world education, states need to raise their academic standards.

For the U.S. to lead the world in education, states need to raise their academic standards, Obama says.

Saying America’s “primacy in the world” is at stake, President Barack Obama on Feb. 22 prodded states to raise their academic standards by using the best leverage he has: money.

Speaking to governors gathered at the White House, Obama said he won’t “accept second place for the United States of America.” He noted that it continues to lag behind other nations in critical areas, including high school math and science skills.

Obama told the governors he wants a change in the nation’s education law that would allow states to receive federal aid for poor students only if they adopt academic standards that are deemed truly to prepare children for college or careers out of high school.

The move would require a change in the nation’s main elementary and secondary education law, which became known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Traditionally, the federal government is a marginal player in the financing and control of education, but its role has expanded as educators and lawmakers at all levels worry about slipping U.S. competitiveness.

Many schools count on a key source of federal aid, known as Title I, to help out their poorest students. That’s the money Obama wants to make contingent upon the setting of more rigorous standards across the nation. It would remain up to states, not Washington, to choose their specific standards.

Many states already are working on a united effort to coordinate and improve their standards. (See “Another step forward for common standards.”)

Yet Obama took a swipe at how some states responded to setting their own academic standards under NCLB, saying 11 states lowered their standards in math between 2005 and 2007.

“That may make those states look better relative to other states,” Obama said, “but it’s not going to help our students keep up with their global competitors.”

Obama spoke to governors of both parties during their yearly gathering with the president at the White House.

The White House said the governors have been working on the president’s Race to the Top program, which rewards school systems that raise standards and demonstrate commitment through tougher student assessments.

At the same time, the White House said that too many states are churning out graduates who are unprepared either for college or careers.

Besides supporting states’ ongoing efforts to raise their quality of education, the White House said the president will commit an additional $350 million to the Race to the Top challenge to back “state-led partnerships to develop new, state-of-the art assessments aligned to college and career-ready standards.”

In a speech at the American Association of School Administrators conference earlier this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the Obama administration’s vision for rewriting the nation’s education law.

The administration wants the revised law to:

• Require states to “adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards in reading and mathematics” to be eligible for federal Title I money.

• Establish a $405 million outlay to help states “align teacher preparation practices and programs to [the] teaching of college- and career-ready standards.”