Almost a million pupils in England are receiving an unsatisfactory education, according to the National Audit Office.
The report says underachievement must not be allowed to persist
The report on underperforming schools by the public spending watchdog recommends faster intervention when there are signs of weakness.
However, it says the number of failing schools has halved since 1998 and £16m a week is targeted at weak ones.
The government said the report endorsed its plans for a quicker turnaround, or closure, for struggling schools.
1,557 poorly performing schools
242 failing (515 in 1998)
71 schools where less than 20% get five good GCSEs
£837m per year in additional support
Special measures schools receiving £407 extra per pupil
The National Audit Office (NAO) says that last summer there were more than 1,500 schools with identified weaknesses, with 242 schools judged by inspectors as "failing".
The total combines schools defined by inspectors as in "special measures", those with "serious weaknesses", "underachieving" schools, plus those identified by the Department for Education as "low attaining" and "under-performing".
Although the number of weak schools has declined substantially, the report says that 13% of pupils in state schools are still receiving an inadequate education.
The longer difficulties persisted for schools, the more difficult it became to raise standards and to restore the reputation, says the report.
It also warns of problems in recruiting head teachers. Of the schools that advertised for a head teacher in the 2004-05 school year, more than a quarter of primary schools and a fifth of secondary schools did not have a permanent head at the time.
William Atkinson, the headmaster credited with turning around the once-failing Phoenix High School in London, said he was not surprised so many schools were without heads.
He said good leadership was "crucial" in improving failing schools but that even this would achieve little without a good team of committed, passionate teachers.
He told BBC News: "I think you need to look at the incentives to work in these challenging schools and I think we need a salary premium, not only for the leadership but also for all teachers working in these institutions."
He said resources needed to be concentrated on children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who were often over-represented in certain schools, making them challenging places to teach.
Class sizes in such schools needed to be reduced to 18-20 pupils per class, he added.
There are wide regional variations in the number of failing schools, which are three times as common in outer London as in the north-east.
A third of local authorities have no failures at all, but there are some with more than six failing schools - and the report suggests some councils are much more effective in tackling such underachievement.
The report also shows city academies have brought the steepest improvements in exam results in previously underperforming schools, but warns it is too early to draw definite conclusions.
It adds academies cost £27m to start up, compared with £2.2m for a "fresh start" school.
NAO head Sir John Bourn said it was "unacceptable for any school to carry on providing a poor education over a period that can take up a large part of a child's school career and deprive them of future prospects and opportunity".
Edward Leigh, chairman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said: "Local authorities, Ofsted and the Department for Education and Skills must act faster either to get these schools to improve or close them before their pupils' chances in life are ruined."
The government said that the report was an endorsement of the plans in its education White Paper to speed up intervention when inspectors find weaknesses in schools.
"No school will be allowed to languish in special measures, with any school failing to show improvement after 12 months facing closure," said schools minister, Jacqui Smith.
"New inspection arrangements will ensure that coasting is no longer an option, schools will only be deemed good if they demonstrate continuing improvement and parents will have new rights to trigger Ofsted inspections," she said.
Conservative education spokesman David Willetts said the report provided "powerful evidence that the quality of education in too many of our schools is sub-standard".
Liberal Democrat spokesman Ed Davey said good head teachers were vital but government meddling was turning people off the profession.