A couple of thoughts, again from someone with no skin in the game:
I don't believe there is anything that DC could mandate that would fix the education department. From a corporate perspective, there is many inefficiencies from corporate wide policy mandates (think Walmart), but corporations are able to make up in quantity what they lose in inefficiencies. Similarly, national educational mandates, while good intentions, do not work on a national level. I don't know that I would go as far to say that the US Dept. of Education should be shut down, but I think their role should be more advisory than mandating.
The above situation works with corporations, but does not with kid's education. It is very domain dependent.
I also do not believe that there is one answer to test scores.
From a home standpoint:
I think the responsibility of raising kids as been put on schools, in a lot of respects. I understand that there were/are lots of kids who come home to an empty house, and that is the reason for after and before school programs. However, from talking to many educators, at a school and district level, this has given permission to parents to essentially babysit their kids, including feeding three meals, from 7am-6pm.
Aside from the kids who fit into the above, I think parents dumb down their kids. Anecdotally, kids who's parents talk to them without the baby talk, and allow their children to make decisions are far more prepared once they get to school age. (again, this is my observation)
Further, I do not believe that students have active parents in their educational lives. Others have parents who are too active and are quick to remove responsibility from their children (evidenced by @The_Myth's anecdote re: book).
From a national, state level
I think many districts are too large and lose the efficiency and effectiveness that smaller districts have. For example, the district I grew up in has grown exponentially. It now has seven high schools. I think it should probably be split into two, with some of the less populated areas of the district joining the small ones. An example, @The_Myth Beaverton School District is building several new ES and a new HS south of Southridge. I would suggest Southrdige and Aloha, for example, joining Gaston or Forest Grove.
I mainly work with medium to smaller school districts (I hate the politics of portland). When talking about facilities to smaller districts, they can't afford to operate and maintain three elementary schools. It would make sense to shut some of them down, sell the property and only maintain, operate one ES. Although, this usually disrupts small communities that make up a district. In which case, the above, joining close SDs into one would be beneficial.
I think that ESDs are a great resource for small school districts that do not have the resources to provide services such as: Special Ed, speech, ELL (ESL), IT, etc. The issue that seems to be relevant to ESDs, although, is a lack of 'Skin in the game'. In other words, there is a lack of responsibility for funds, or put another way, there isn't a private business mindset of providing a service to customers and making financially smart decisions.
A few examples that come to mind: Unfunded all day kindergarten, PE standards and food are several larger mandates that have impacted districts I work in. Some districts only have four day weeks and an early release(late start) on Wednesdays due to budget cuts, unfunded mandates, etc, etc.
Peter's Principle: At some point everyone reaches a professional level of incompetence
I think that a superintendent should be educator minded, but have a business mindset.
I think principals should be educators who are good leaders, unafraid of making decisions, yet are compassionate.
I think there are a lot of bad teachers. I have met them. They are demanding, think they are owed the world and victims to everything. An argument I often have with my sister and mother in law (both teachers), is that they complain about their pay. However, if you take their salary and extrapolate based on a 9 month, 180 day contract, they usually make more than they think. They also have retirement, paid summer off, and fully health care.
This ended up longer than I expected, is probably incoherent and doesn't really address much, but it's a few thoughts.