There is a great debate going on between Michael Petrilli (The Fordham Foundation) and Neal McCluskey (from the Cato Institute) on National Standards at Edspresso.
However, I'm not entirely convinced that either party is on the right track.
As much as I like the free market system, the reality is that we live in a social welfare state and that's not going to change any time soon. A majority of people believe that subsidizing education is a good thing. Once we agree to public subsidies, then the public will want a say in what's going on in education, for better or worse. Now we're stuck in the political process with all its evils.
Then we have the very real problem that we do have somewhat of a free market in education, private schools and our university system; but the market appears not to value increased student achievement or, at least, is incapable of increasing student achievement.
Do we know if a Harvard education is any better than a state college education once you adjust for student ability? Our university system does a fairly good job segregating students by IQ and works as a signaling mechanism for employers, but how well do they actually do in the education department. In this respect education is not like an ipod. An ipod is simply to understand and evaluate, a quality education is not. Education is an extremely complex product that is probably beyond the ability of your average consumer to effectively evaluate. And, third parties haven't exactly stepped up to provide this service. The one thing lacking from all these school ranking services is an identification of the actual education you're going to receive from these institutions.
Then we have private K-12 schools. They seem to be just as infected, if not more so, with the same faddish nonsense that pervades the public schools. They may eke out a tiny marginal advantage, but once you adjust for SES, its pretty small and certainly not sufficient to bring all students to the level we want.
One problem is that we do not have a decent signaling mechanism in place in which the consumer (the parent) is able to readily determine how well a school is actually doing educating students. The devil is in the details (the curriculum) and finding out about the actual curriculum in most schools is close impossible, assuming the consumer even knows what to look for. Most do not.
On the flip side, we have the problem of standards, national, state or otherwise. For the most part they stink at the state level. This is because the standards are written by people who have never successfully taught students anything, let alone the ones on the left half of the curve. Are they effective in weeding out ineffective curricula-- doubtful. Do they prevent successful curricula from being implemented--sometimes.
Then we have the whole regulatory capture issue. Education groups are very adept at getting their "standards" enshrined into national and state standards. The NCTM has been extremely successful getting their "standards" into the NAEP math exam. The test has been revised to accord with these standards, nevermind whether actual math is tested anymore. Or whether the "math" that is tested is actually necessary to succeed in higher level mathematics. It's not like the NCTM has ever successfully raised the student achievement of any student as a result of their standards. They were imposed from the top without any sound grounding in reality. They've also been extensively revised a few times, indicating that they didn't get it right in the past.
No, standards are one of those things that sound good on paper but fail miserably in reality. Kinda like communism.
Solving the education crisis is going to require attending to the smallest of details or putting a mechanism in place in which the providers of education are forced to. Unfortunately, these messy details are not amenable to high level policy debates and sound bites.