New plans to improve standards in some Scottish schools will not help the majority of young people, unions say.
The school curriculum is being examined
First Minister Jack McConnell said 20 Scottish secondaries would be chosen for the "schools for ambition" project.
David Eaglesham from the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) said the move was "soundbite politics".
But Education Minister Peter Peacock defended the plans, which target the schools deemed to be most in need, and said system-wide change was planned.
He said councils were already interested in signing up for the scheme.
The proposals were highlighted by Mr McConnell as he unveiled the Scottish Executive's legislative plans on the first day of business in the new Scottish Parliament.
He said that the "most comprehensive modernisation programme of our secondary schools for a generation" would be unveiled in the coming weeks.
Money from the executive and wealthy philanthropists will be used to drive up standards under the "schools for ambition" programme.
School inspectors and councils will choose the 20 secondaries which will take part in the project.
"There will be centres of excellence, but let me be clear: there will be no elitist selection of pupils," he said.
On Wednesday, Mr Peacock told BBC Radio Scotland that the aim was to improve schools in difficult areas with "great social problems".
He said he wanted to help those schools which were closest to what the executive wanted to "move further up" and achieve their ambitions.
But he stressed: "We also need those who are most away from the top to begin to transform their performance in order to improve that performance for their kids and to deliver better outcomes.
"That is where the schools for ambition programme comes from - to help that transformation of those schools most in need of that transformation," he said.
However, Mr Eaglesham said it struck him as a "very cosmetic" exercise.
The SSTA's general secretary said it was "quite meaningless" to target just 20 schools and asked what happened to the 21st school.
"If there are problems in the Scottish education system then they need to be addressed," he said.
"The problem is that if you simply take individual schools and try to do a number of things within those schools, that is not helpful to the majority.
"If there is an issue with discipline we should tackle the issue with discipline. If there is an issue with achievement we should tackle the issue with achievement wherever it appears."
He said the proposals were against the traditions of Scottish education and would not be effective.
The education minister defended the number of schools involved in the project.
"We have got to start somewhere. We have got to start with a manageable number," he said.
The executive wants to get the schools signed up on the programme quickly.
But he stressed: "We are talking not just about these 20 schools but system-wide change and system-wide improvement.
"We are going to be putting more teachers into schools across the whole system, we are building new schools across the whole system, we are tackling discipline across the whole system."
He said the modernisation programme would look at the curriculum and its structure, teacher education and
assessment methods for exams.
The executive was sending a signal that it wanted to "gear up" its actions and set new standards for secondary education.
He added: "Some of the things we have done about our curriculum in the past have actually created a bit of a vacuum below Standard Grade and kids lose their
way, they don't have the motivation to stay in school.
"Perhaps we haven't given enough emphasis to music, drama and sport - the motivating factors that keep people in school.
"Perhaps we have not done enough about school leadership in the past. We need to strengthen that, help the motivational factors and help motivate not just kids but teachers.
Jack McConnell highlighted the proposals on Tuesday
"There are a whole range of things we need to do."
Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the schools for ambition project was using funding from a charitable institution set up by Scottish entrepreneur Tom Hunter.
She said the approach was based on the example of an English initiative which had seen the introduction of strict discipline.
"I am not sure that some of the youngsters who have difficulty with school need that kind of approach," she said.
"On the other hand, what Tom Hunter is famous for in education is trying to bring a new approach in terms of enterprise, so maybe the schools will go more down that route."