Create national student defense loans, with low interest rates, and allow college grads and students who took out loans during the Bush years (and were forced to go through intermediaries to secure government funded support) to apply and refinance their college loans. It is in our national security to have a highly educated and trained workforce.
Reform secondary education following the German model where young people who are not college bound finish high school after tenth grade and become apprentices learning trades on the job. This would require businesses become involved in educating future employees. Recent "reforms" are not serious attempts for real improvement in our schools causing frustration for both students and teachers.
Instead of forcing academics earlier and earlier, while reducing or even removing play time and recess, mandate developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) in the classroom--particularly for younger elementary age children. Development is a predictable and well-researched process. Policy makers need to heed advice of academics specializing in this field--NOT corporations selling test products.
Break up the age/grade lock-step. Allow students to advance either by subject or by grade when they demonstrate proficiency. Then guarantee free education for all students until the spring after their 18th birthday. If they graduate college before then, they get funding for grad school! This provides incentive for lower-income students to WORK in school, and a financial incentive for parents to encourage them.
Include teachers in the planning of curriculum. The testing that was developed and the common core that is being pushed was done with Pearson and Gates group with no input from teachers. The smater balanced test is designed to show failure and it has not been validated. Time for teaching not testing.
Separate Regular Ed. funding from Special Ed funding. Both are important and regulated by Federal mandates. Some education funding flows into private education, vouchers, home schooling, and, I've heard, our military training. When the funding is lumped together the public makes assumptions about where the money is going. I'd like to see the Federal education funding shown as dollars per student in each category. $2 billion looks great until shown as $500 per student.
Create a division of the Dept of Education to develop a curriculum (preschool through high school AND adult education) for Critical Thinking and Metacognition (see Wikipedia) that will include the latest practical findings in neuroscience, psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics and information science. Updated at regular intervals (say 3-5 years) it would assist citizens in focusing on the evidence base and best practice analysis of public issues.
Take the 100 most underperforming schools in the country and transform them into magnificent learning hubs. Invest in refurbishing, make the schools state of the art in regard to technology, try to attract some of the best teachers in the country, create a plethora of afterschool programs including possibly a "help with homework" room where educators are available after hours to help students with homework assignments. Even try to invest in the area surrounding the school.