One of the subjects on the state standards for fourth grade in Colorado is "government". Students are supposed to learn how government works and be able to name the three basic branches of state and federal government. It's especially appropriate given how much influence those various branches have on the children's daily lives at school. We're in an era now of "enhanced government involvement" in education (sort of like "enhanced interrogation") perhaps more so than at any other time since the beginning of the public school system in America.
From my perspective it's primarily driven by fear which is a powerful motivator. The fear is an honest one, parents and community members see the job market tightening and hear frightening tales of tomorrow's students competing in a global market place filled with brainiacs from all over the world who do nothing but study day and night and have standardized test scores that reach the stratosphere.
Of course these brilliant children from other countries are primarily fictional characters. Reading any of the recent articles from Diane Ravitch or other reputable writers on education shows that it's more complex than that. Her recent article in The New York Review of Books http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/mar/22/how-and-how-not-improve-schools/
is an excellent place to start to get a thoughtful look at education here and abroad.
While I can't claim to have all the answers, or even most of them I'm pretty sure that the current crop of political movers and shakers don't have the answers either.
Here is something I do know:
If a child grows up in a family where there are few books they will likely have problems in school. When we talk about reading on grade level, for example at fourth grade, we're not talking about a discreet skill we're talking about having an accumulated knowledge base that covers their life up to that point. In other words, "being on grade level" at fourth grade means you've been an engaged, active learner growing up in an environment where you're exposed to educated vocabulary for the past nine years. If you haven't had that experience there's close to nothing that can be done to "fix that". A good coach could probably teach you to throw a football five yards further than you have done before and with a couple weeks of practice you could probably do that. As a teacher, I can't teach you to be reading on a fourth grade level because that implies having that background described earlier. I can't inject you with an educated, engaged upbringing.
I can teach readers and writers to be better at what they do. As an upper elementary grade teacher I can guide students to writing quality essays or understanding more complex stories and connecting them to other texts but I can't give you a magic pill to change your life.
Imagine a patient coming to a doctor complaining of chest pains and during the exam it's revealed that the person smokes several packs of cigarettes a day and won't quit. We'd think the person was crazy to demand and expect a "cure" and yet current education policy is oriented around expecting a teacher to "cure" a student who comes into fourth grade reading at a first grade level with a background that has never included reading at home and whose daily life involves hours and hours of reality TV or video games.
If you want to improve students success in school work to eliminate poverty. Support programs that educate communities about the importance of early literacy. Searching for the elusive "bad teachers" who are holding students back takes a lot of energy that could be directed in more useful ways.