Maybe I'm missing something but I'm not sure how you got here
but I would suggest that it is foolhardy to argue that our kids are not being as well educated as they were in the past.
based on what you wrote. The kids you interviewed in the 90s were better educated than the kids you interviewed in 2008 (who most likely spent their high school years under NCLB dictates).
As to the Civil War writers I think there are probably a lot of things to take into consideration. I've read elsewhere about the high literacy rates before public schools started. I suspect that, like China now, they made no attempt to test every kid. I also suspect there was a bit of "I'll pay you a dollar to write this letter for me" thing going on. It's impossible to say. Maybe Setanta will show up and school me on the topic.
This "bad teacher" thing really bothers me. I don't think it's hard to fire a bad teacher, at least no harder than it is to fire any other bad government employee.
It's how they determine the "bad" that is the real problem. Should the "worst 8th grade math teacher in New York" be fired? All the data reports show she's the worst.
I think she should get to keep her job.
Read her story: http://eyeoned.org/content/the-worst-eighth-grade-math-teacher-in-new-york-city_326/
Do you think she should be fired?
If not, how do you suppose we ferret out these bad teachers?
The educational elite don't set the curriculum. Politicians and school board members are rarely educators. They typically have 0 background in education. Where did you get the idea that the educational elite are designing curricula?