In no way am I being defeatist, but there is no single correct answer to this question. If it is a simple solution you seek, it will be a fruitless quest. All of the areas you identified are domains where education has to improve. Assessment, pedagogy, instruction which parallels the 21st Century learner, and the political dimension to education all have to undergo significant examination and reevaluation. Part of the challenge is that the precise answers are near impossible to find because of the different variables involved in teaching. Once there is some understanding or common ground reached within all the stakeholders of the education process, there might be some movement in the intense inertia that prevents true and meaningful reform of the education system.
Where to start? The funding formula for how schools get their money from each state needs to be reformed so there is more equity between schools and a more consistent budget to work with. This, along with scrapping most of the major high stakes testing programs would be the legislative side of needed reforms.
In terms of curriculum, getting rid of these tests will help untie the hands of local districts and teachers to reform their own curriculum. It will also allow for the addition of more arts, music and elective classes which will no longer be taken up by remedial core courses.
In terms of teacher reform it does need to be easier to remove poor teachers - not on the basis of poor student performance, as there is no way to accurately measure the correlation between student performance and teacher performance, there are just too many factors affecting that. But through internal evaluations and observations - by getting administration back into the classrooms to get in touch with teachers and their students.
Lastly, reasonable funding for teachers to continue their education and professional development. As it stands, we have a natural disincentive for teachers to improve their skills because there is a monetary penalty attached.
Current research shows that one of the biggest challenges refers of course to budgeting and whether the No Child Left Behind bill offers the sufficient strategies for monitoring student success.
With budgeting, what has been found is that we have a new generation of learners (Millennials) who are right now way ahead of their teachers because they have more access to technology and information at home in their own laptops than they do at school! Imagine a public school with one shared computer per every three students and a teacher that may or may not know how to operate it. Budget would be needed to equip the school and train the teachers in 21st century teaching strategies, but we find that sometimes it cannot occur. Hence, some schools are behind and playing catch up with their students, who can probably teach them how to do things.
With NCLB, it is common knowledge that the bill clearly wants to show progress through standardized testing in a generic and collective way with little or no attention to quality. If your school does not "do well", you are doomed. So, legislature should start thinking a way to re-visit this bill and try another method of measuring progress so that the skills of the students, particularly those who will help them for the rest of their lives, are the primary concern of the teachers and not a silly goose question posted on a computer-generated test.
In my opinion, the most important thing to do is to find adequate ways to assess the progress that students are making (or are not making) and find ways to determine how much (if at all) teachers are to blame for the problems.
We have a real problem with knowing how to assess students. We do not seem to be able to assess in ways that are both reliable and fair.
When it comes to teachers, it is not clear to me that we know when to blame teachers for the problems students are having. I firmly believe there are bad teachers and we need to be able to get rid of them. But I do not have faith in our ability to determine which teachers are good or bad in any sort of fair manner.