At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it's possible to eat our cake and have it too. Here's how: national standards (content standards, please) ought to represent a statement of what we expect our kids to learn and know in school. What if we married those standards to national assessments, with reading comprehension tests tied to those content standards. In other words, the selections on the tests would be culled from the content standards, thus making it a test worth teaching to. Finally, tie federal funding to states adopting the standards and tests with NO SANCTIONS WHATSOEVER based on performance. Thus the federal role is limited to spreading sunshine--a pure apples-to-apples comparison among states, districts and schools. If everyone is taking the same test, it'll be pretty clear who is performing well and not, and up to states and districts to improve their performance. If you're serious about "decentralizing down to a few million Darwinian enclaves" as you put it, then the only way to credibly gauge performance and unlock what works is if everyone is shooting for the same target.
Standards don't stand in isolation to the rest of the Gordian knot. The way they're written can drive whether or not your curriculum spirals. They can drive pedagogy, phonics vs. sight words, for example. They can drive calculator usage, or not. Whosoever shall write the standards, shall tie the rest of the knot.
These things drive text book selection, which is driven by the ed schools and professional organizations with skin in the game. Don't forget the publishers and consultant community. Lots and lots of players converge on standards.
I would pose another question, perhaps more thought provoking... Why should the feds give a rats patootie (is patootie a word?)how a school performs? OK, it's rhetorical! They care because they've got their $$$ nose in the tent.
Why is their nose in the tent? It's not a constitutional mandate is it? I think the only people that should care at all are the parents. The objective measure (over time) is; are the graduates successful in their post graduate pursuits? This is far more important than a contrived test.
Until parents own the measurement, and take responsibility for the cost by paying for and having the freedom to not pay if the measurement flops, the camel wins every time.
By advocating for, and accepting federal or state money, schools and parents are making a pact with the devil. They are allowing a convergence of interests (not necessarily aligned with their own) to drive their children's future.
I guess I'm just not convinced that we're collectively smart enough to write a 'standard' that fits millions of kids to a tee.
Point taken. Bad standards are worse than none. But parental interest is a strong reason to support nationalized standards and assessments. As a parent, it's impossible to know whether your child's school is terrific, atrocious or somewhere in the middle unless it's measured by the same yardstick as all the others.
My favorite statement re: parents comes from Joe Williams, who points out that parents have the best odds of making the right educational decisions for their own children.
I agree with Joe, and I believe that you could demonstrate historically that parents as a group have systematically been right where everyone else was wrong.