Today we looked at our screwed up public school system and it sparked a lively debate among you commenters. What's to be done? One commenter in particular unpacked the problem nicely. Nothing was solved exactly, but nothing ever is.
There are (at least) two important issues in play here: (1) what are the benchmark standards we think all students should have at least a functional grasp of by the time they complete their public education, and (2) who decides what those standards should be.
Addressing the latter issue first, if we leave the states to establish their own standards we leave those standards subject to the whim of political expediency in state-level elections. (If reading scores are up and math is down - incumbent pounds on reading gains, challenger demands more accountability in math. Both sides can always find something to bang on, and the schools are the ones left holding the bag when everything they just got used to doing needs to be changed again just because whoever won had needed some shit to talk about their opponent during the campaign and now they expect everyone to actually follow through on whatever totally unthought-out thing it was they had promised.) Not to mention the campaign rhetoric around other hot-button social issues rooted in the schools, but which aren't necessarily reflected in the tested standards, such as the teaching of evolution vs. creationism, sex ed in schools, balancing ESL vs. immersion approaches to schools in particularly immigrant-phobic areas, etc., etc., etc.. - all of which eventually becomes an issue of who controls what is taught in schools.
Another problem (from the perspective of many of us coastal elitey-types), is that textbook publishers are majorly influenced by the curriculum standards in the larger states. So, for example, if Texas forced through a standard that mandated the teaching of creationism in elementary school science classes - the larger national textbook retailers (a small number of which exist, and from which all states pretty much have to choose when spending federal money on textbooks) would have to begin covering that content in their textbooks to win contracts in Texas. The same textbooks which would then be adopted by other states, whose smaller contracts are not comparatively worth the modifications and alternate series reprints involved in removing that content.
On the plus side however, states are slightly better equipped to create standards that are appropriately sensitive to the lives and backgrounds of students in their state. In many states, this is no easy task. One of the contributing reasons I think states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, etc. always perform highly in state-by-state education rankings on whatever the subject du jour of the given listicle is, and states like Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, etc. do worse is because it is far easier to create blanket state education policies and standards that work in states where the population is relatively evenly distributed. In other words, those northeastern states have a lot of comparably sized suburban towns with similar resources and needs, whereas many large southern states have both highly concentrated urban settings (Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Dallas) as well as vast expanses of highly rural one-lightpost towns. The needs/problems/resources of the urban and rural areas of those states might as well be interplanetary, but the state still needs to hold them all to the same standards, and so the standards become inevitably watered down for everyone. Multiply that by fifty, and you'll see the problems with trying to establish a single, blanket set of standards for the country.
All that said, I think the far more important issue is the first one (mentioned waaaay up at the top of this longer-than-anticipated comment). It is what should the standards be. The biggest problem in education right now is that we are trying to prepare kids for a rapidly changing future with a 200-year old curriculum. Instead of handwriting we should be teaching typing (or, keyboarding, to be more specific) from an early age. Instead of (or in addition to) French or Spanish, we should be teaching basic coding languages as "foreign language" elective options. In addition to regurgitative story comprehension skills, we should be teaching principals of financial literacy and basic concepts of common legalese as part of math or language "comprehension" standards. We should be embracing technology and teaching young kids internet and cell phone savvy (and safety) skills instead of just pretending nothing new exists and leaving them to inevitably figure it all out by trial and error at a friend's house. Also, there should be recess every day. Everywhere. Twice.
But I guess it all still comes back to who exactly should decide this stuff. I don't know, me?