"People should understand how the system is falling short today and how it really contradicts our commitment to equal opportunity," Gates told The Associated Press. "If we don't change it now, it will hurt the future of the country as a whole."
Only one-third of American high school students graduate with the skills necessary to succeed in college and the nation's workplaces, he said.
"All too often, the value and benefit of education are not real enough to kids," said Tony Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education. Charities and industry won't have to go it alone; about $100 billion of the federal stimulus package is dedicated to improvements in education, said Miller.
The "Get Schooled" initiative focuses on low graduation rates in college and high school and the accountability of teachers. Gates criticized the practice of salaries rewarding seniority over proven efficacy, calling it a detriment to quality education.
A student drops out of an American high school every 26 seconds, according to the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.
At that rate, not enough American children are graduating high school and college to stay competitive in the global marketplace, said Viacom President and CEO Philippe Dauman.
"We don't know much about substance, we're about fluff at Viacom," Dauman said with a laugh. The Viacom chief, whose networks also include VH1, CMT, Spike TV, TV Land and Logo, said he told Gates a year ago, "We know kids, we know how to reach them; if you provide the substance we can be the megaphone."
To launch the five-year campaign, the documentary "Get Schooled" was set to premiere on all of Viacom's networks simultaneously at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday night.
The documentary features pop singer Kelly Clarkson, basketball star LeBron James and President Barack Obama, but the program's real focus is on people behind the scenes, like a presidential speechwriter, and how education brought them success.
Dauman said the "Get Schooled" initiative would find its way into plot lines and programs, like BET's documentary "Bring Your 'A' Game," which featured prominent black men who have achieved success.
But "we're not going to go to all PBS-type programming," Dauman said. "In order to reach kids, you have to entertain them."
Activism is not new for Viacom and its networks. MTV has raised AIDS awareness, promoted participation in elections and led other education initiatives.
At a Los Angeles event to launch the "Get Schooled" campaign, New York City schools chief Joel Klein said he was hopeful the approach would succeed because "trying to get traction with the millions and millions of kids in school is something that's been a challenge."
"When you bring the resources and the vision that the Gates family and foundation has, coupled with the distribution assets that Viacom has - the role models, the glitz they can produce - it feels like a good mix of stuff that will capture kids," Klein said.
Klein and others praised the successes of charter schools, which have drawn the ire of union representatives and school officials. Union leaders in Los Angeles say that such schools would decrease the size of districts and that instructors at charter schools are not covered by unions.
An e-mail to the nation's largest labor union, the National Education Association, was not returned immediately Tuesday.
Privately operated schools undertook fresh approaches to schooling, had happier teachers and inspired healthy competition in achievement among New York City schools, said Klein.
In Los Angeles, the Board of Education approved a resolution that invites outsiders to submit proposals to develop new charter schools, while increasing accountability standards.
Private charter school operators, communities and the mayor's office will submit proposals for the operation of 50 new schools that will open over the next four years, as well as 200 existing schools that are chronic underperformers.
Tuesday's event coincided with a speech Obama made in Arlington, Va., that was broadcast to schools across the nation. In the address, Obama urged students to hit the books, saying that success is hard-won and that every student has something at which they excel.