People like me who support the No Child Left Behind law often say to critics, "Well, it might not be perfect, but you got any better ideas?" Sometimes we are not that polite, and if we hear suggested alternatives, we often dismiss them as the addled dreams of political innocents.

That is not very fair or useful. So I have invited several thoughtful and experienced critics of NCLB to present summaries of their ideas for taking our schools in a different direction. I told them their entries had to be short, practical, comprehensible and point toward the quickest possible lasting improvement in the reading, writing and math skills of the largest number of low-performing, low-income children. As a guide, I gave them my short summary of what current policy would sound like if I summitted it as my own idea.

Here we go--first my summary and then the thoughts of these conscientious critics. I hope this will help all of us, particularly me, see what sense there is in doing something other than what we are doing.

Jay Mathews: The standards movement, exemplified by the No Child Left Behind law, would try to help low-performing students by testing them regularly and threatening schools with unattractive labels or loss of funds if they did not succeed in increasing students' reading, writing and math scores. Students in grades 3 to 8 would be tested once each year and high schoolers at least once before graduation. States would have the option of tying promotion and graduation decisions to the test results.

Schools that did not show steady improvement in overall test score averages, and in the average scores of subgroups like minorities and low-income children, would have to help parents transfer to other schools and/or get free tutoring. Teachers who had not demonstrated competence in the subjects they teach would be banned from the classroom. Schools shown to be unable to meet the standards would be entitled to more resources and perhaps forced to change staffs. The goal would be all students proficient by 2014.

Strength: Focus on achievement of low-performing children.

Weakness: Dependence on test scores and fanciful goals.

Anthony Cody, math and science teacher, Bret Harte Middle School, Oakland, Calif.: Accountability is a tricky thing. If I tell you exactly what to do, and then do not give you the resources with which to accomplish the task, how accountable will you feel to meet my goals?

Our schools reflect our communities and are dependent on them for resources, support and guidance. Genuine accountability occurs when people are actively involved in the process of setting goals and given support so they feel part of a team. In troubled districts, the team must reach beyond school walls. Transience, poverty, violence--these are problems that require real community involvement to address.

We need community goal-setting, where town meetings are convened. Educators would help plan and lead these meetings, along with business and political leaders. Each community can then identify the priorities and marshal resources to support the schools. When we invest our hearts and creative thoughts into our public schools, they will become truly accountable. A basic amount of federal aid would go to needy districts. Additional funding would go to those with creative and ambitious initiatives.

Strength: Develops real consensus at a local level, creating the basis for change.

Weakness: Does not spell out how problems will be addressed, and some communities may not have the capacity to make change.

Deborah Meier, author of "In Schools We Trust" and co-principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston: Go back to having truly public schools--belonging to a reasonably-sized public. No school board should be responsible for the work of more than 5,000 students or 15 small schools, and parents should be provided with choices between schools. Require all schools and/or districts to define what it takes to get their diploma, along with the publicly accessible evidence used to determine who has or has not met their definition.

Schools should be required to provide such data on the progress of all their students--by income and race. The school's evidence should include results on a state-approved test of basic literacy and arithmetic skill aimed at an 8th grade level of competency, sampled standardized testing in literacy and math between grades 10-12, as well as a publicly accessible periodic external review of its fiscal integrity and its educational competence and outcomes. All schools would maintain longitudinal data tracking their students over time--including drop-out data on cohort groups as well as what happens to its graduates for at least 4 more years.

All schools would be funded equal to the per pupil expenditures of the wealthiest subdistrict, with additional funds for schools with higher percentages of low-income pupils. Insure that all children's medical needs are met, that high quality child-care is available when school is not in session, and that children are schooled in equally sound physical plants. All school faculties spend at least half as much of their working hours in consultation with families and colleagues and in professional development activities as is spent instructing or monitoring pupils.

Strengths: It's in keeping with democracy and our tradition of local schooling, balances accountability among various parties, and is do-able.

Weakness: It would involve attending to equity in the lives of kids, which costs money.

Kenneth J. Bernstein, social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt HighSchool, Greenbelt, Md.: You asked for "the quickest possible lasting improvement." A focus on "quickest" will at best achieve more effective prep for tests that indicate little beyond success on the tests.

To improve reading and writing, make both enjoyable. Give students books they can own. Many inner city kids neither have access to libraries nor do they have many books in their homes. And read aloud with them.

When I taught middle school (including teaching reading), I rewarded my students by letting them pick books to keep from a stash I created. I bought used books and dollar editions of classics. I wanted my students to see reading as a reward. We read things aloud, and acted them out, in reading and in history. When they read silently, so did I.

Let them write about things that interest them. Then show them how to improve their writing, using their own work. Devote enough resources to give children more attention and help on their writing, which can't happen in classrooms with 35 kids.

Most of all, don't use reading and writing as a punishment. Treat them to something wonderful and delightful.

Strength: Uses intrinsic reinforcement, builds life-long skills.

Weakness: More expensive than teaching to the test.

Susan Ohanian, author of "What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?": First, do no harm.

Second, do not treat all schools the same.

Third, do not accept directives from or pay consulting fees to people who have never in their lives been shut up in a room with 28 seventh graders.

Fourth, beware of people who offer glib oxymorons-framed-as-solutions--such as "the quickest possible lasting improvement in the reading, writing and math skills of thelargest number of low-performing, low-income children."

Fifth, when people use the term "low-performing," be sure to check whose performance measures are being used.

Sixth, before mandating statewide use of a performance measure, ask lawmakersto take it and allow their scores to be posted.

Seventh, talk to children. Listen to a few.

Finally, count how many times the phrase "joy in learning" is used in any proposal to "fix" any school.

Strength: Depends on teachers whose professionalism, savvy, inventiveness, good humor, sensitivity, resiliency and love of children show them that the map is not the territory.

Weakness: Scares the U.S. Congress, governors, Achieve, the Business Roundtable and other power brokers who see democratic processes as messy, unreliable, and dangerous, people who insist the map must be the territory.

Daniel Domenech, superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools: I have had my shot at your question here in Fairfax County and we call it Project Excel. Four years ago we took our 20 lowest performing elementary schools in the county and provided them with the means to significantly improve the achievement of their students. They have succeeded. Our formula incorporates three key components:

{lsaquo}{sbquo}1. Time to learn -- Students that are behind need more time to catch up. It's that simple. The group in front is not going to slow down and allow the rest of the field to catch up. But if the race isn't over when the first person crosses the line, everyone can finish the race. Initiatives like preschool programs, full day kindergarten, extended school days, extended school year, and summer programs will provide kids with the additional time to catch up.

{lsaquo}{sbquo}2. Focus on learning -- Make student achievement the end all and be all of the school. Everyone in the school (principal, teacher, parent, custodian, secretary, community volunteers) will work with every child to make sure each child is learning. Not very complicated, is it?

{lsaquo}{sbquo}3. Hold people accountable -- There is nothing wrong with holding people accountable for what they do, or don't do. I like that about No Child Left Behind and the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL). What gets measured gets done. We hold our Excel schools accountable and we expect results. We have established measurable targets for each school through the Schoolwide Achievement Index (SAI) using SOL and Stanford 9 results. When the school achieves its target, everyone in the school gets a bonus (up to $2000 just before the holidays in December). We want everyone to succeed, so we help them. So far, we have not had to impose any sanctions on any Excel school. We have made staffing changes where warranted.

Strength: Our kids are learning. Not a single Excel school was designated "needs improvement" under NCLB.

Weakness: Surprise! It costs money. We spend about half a million dollars more per school in additional resources such as full day kindergarten, bonuses and staff development. Money is a key component missing from NCLB and the SOLs.

Sue Allison, Coordinator of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing: Instead of school choice, districts would have to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward school climate (class size, quiet places for one-on-one work with students, cheerful atmosphere, air conditioning, toilet paper, computers, books for all) goals. They would also have to make AYP toward teacher quality goals, which would include an acceptable veteran/rookie teacher ratio, mentorship programs, training in multiple intelligences and learning styles, and an adequate number of remedial reading, writing and math specialists on staff at every school.

Instead of standardized tests, students could be referred for brief on-site assessment by the remedial specialists as early as the first week of first grade. Parents must be shown the type of books the child should be able to read, the type of math problems they should be able to solve, etc. at each grade level. Parents or teachers could request remedial attention at any point along the way. Advocacy programs must be set up so that students whose parents with literacy or language issues could be assigned an effective school advocate.

Children must be exposed to fascinating children's books every day. Each school should offer creative writing programs, in which the phrase "five paragraph essay" is strictly banned! Instruction must be age appropriate -- meaning kindergartners are not expected to read and write -- and spend lots of time finger-painting and having a good time.

School evaluations should be based 50 percent on GAO-style reports from the state education department, after audit teams have done classroom visits in which they make observations about student engagement among other things. The other 50 percent would come from parent and student surveys which would ask questions such as: Are you treated in a respectful manner? Do you feel safe? Do you like school or are you bored out of your gourd? Teachers with the best survey results get big old bonuses -- a percentage of which could go to the school.

Democracy in public education would be restored by banning interference by state business roundtables and by giving local school board members voting rights with regard to major state policy initiatives. All state board of education members and state superintendents must be elected. The federal government would have to provide funding at a ratio of 2 to 1 based on the state requiring the most money to come into compliance -- thereby eliminating the temptation to refuse federal aid.

Strength: Focuses on solutions vs. punitive measures.

Weakness: Would be more expensive and would require state constitutional amendments and union flexibility.

Ronald A. Wolk, board chairman, Editorial Projects in Education, publishers of "Education Week" and "Teacher" magazine: Standards-based reform and NCLB are both powerful forces making our monolithic public education system even more so. The kids entering our public schools come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. They are from scores of different countries and speak different languages, they have different interests and talents and learn in different ways, and they have very different needs. We need to fashion a system of public schools that matches that diversity, but still provides the kind of common experience that has long served to integrate different children into our democratic society.

The alternative to the present inflexible, test-driven accountability system is to personalize education--to adopt something like the medical model where we try to tailor a child's education to his or her skills, interests and needs. We need to create new small, innovative schools that focus on helping youngsters become competent, responsible adults who will be lifelong learners. Schools must help children develop qualities that standardized tests cannot measure.

Solid research and decades of experience with alternative schools provide ample evidence that small, innovative, autonomous schools do a much better job than conventional public schools. Yet we continue to build and operate big, impersonal schools that treat all kids the same.

Strength: Creates more innovative and autonomous schools and increases the odds that kids will be able to find a place where they can get the education they need and deserve.

Weakness: The deeply embedded conventions of the past are more than capable of stifling radical new beginnings.

Bruce Fuller, education professor, University of California at Berkeley: Fewer rules and emboldened teachers for elementary schools. Enrich teachers' workplaces, treat them like thinking professionals, and talk-up pedagogies that work. Consolidate all funding streams (California has 126 of them) into block-grants, and beam dollars directly to school principals, then hold them answerable.

For high schools, blow them up. We haven't appreciably raised teens' achievement over the past half-century. Popular culture teaches them to be adults; educators treat them like passive toddlers. Get students into the community, which career academies and innovative charter schools are doing on a small scale.

Washington should let governors oversee the schools. The federal government should firmly support governors' ability to advance high standards, nurture alternative schools, and deliver on the promise that all children sit before a top-notch teacher. Plenty of children will be left behind until the federal government closes gross spending gaps, whereby New York spends over twice per student than Alabama.

Strength: Stronger tools for teachers, attending to students' motivation.

Weakness: Requires true federalism with unwavering resources from Washington.

Richard Lodish, associate head, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.: Standards used in classrooms need to be balanced -- neither so permissive that confusion about what to teach reigns, nor so rigid that they limit individuality and creativity. The ways in which standards, corresponding tests and curriculum packages are used today may be a crutch for mediocre teachers, but too often wear down the really good ones.

We can, and should, have general standards, yet we need to allow teachers to implement them in ways that respect teachers as professionals and that truly help their students to learn. Teachers in standards-driven schools are too often motivated and consumed by data with less time, as a result, to help students, less time to prepare interesting, engaging lessons, and less time to really teach, in the sense of turning kids on to learning, not simply teaching them to fill in worksheets leading nowhere other than to answer test questions. We want children in pursuit of knowledge, not simply knowledge in pursuit of children.

The manner in which standards are implemented today, with detailed curriculum packages aligned to the tests, also interferes with teachers collaborating on subject areas and teaching in ways that work for them and their students.

Strength: Provides a road map to help teachers know where they are going and allows teachers to implement the standards in ways that respect them as professionals.

Weakness: It may be difficult for weak teachers for shed their dependence on crutches like curriculum packages. Good teachers may veer too far off course from good standards.

Tim Hacsi, author of 'Children As Pawns' and lecturer, Harvard Extension School: I would target funds toward schools with low-income, low-performing students, for one purpose: small classes of 15 students or less in elementary schools, taught by highly qualified teachers. There is strong evidence that putting students in classes of about 15 students has a long-term impact on their achievement, their attitudes toward schools, and other important factors. The impact is especially strong on low-income children.

There is also considerable evidence that quality of teaching matters. Some of the money should go to new classrooms -- not trailers! -- and some should go toward higher salaries to retain the best teachers. Higher standards are important, but testing doesn't guarantee them (neither does my plan). Good teachers in classes small enough to recognize each child's strengths and weaknesses will also have time to try to address those weaknesses, without the negative side-effects that can come from some approaches to testing, such as increased drop-out rates.

Strength: Targets low-performing students with an evidence-based approach (there is no meaningful evidence on the effects of continual testing).

Weakness: Expensive in the short run.

Deb Van Dalen, sixth grade teacher, Greenville Middle School, Greenville, Wis.: The first and perhaps most valuable change in education needs to be in the area of adult education. In order to enroll their child in kindergarten, parents should be required to take a course on parenting a successful student. A second course would be required before the child enters middle school and another as they enter high school. These would be semester long courses, not one evening seminars.

Teachers also need time for continuing education. A one semester or one trimester paid leave every five years during which the teacher could go back to being a full time student would refresh the teacher and provide a new base of skills. It would also provide the time to put together comprehensive meaningful units and lessons to take back to the classroom.

Breaking the year into trimesters with three week breaks and four day weeks would have many educational benefits and provide options to parents, students, and teachers. Teachers would gain the much needed time to plan, contact parents, attend meetings, etc. Less time would be used reviewing. The freshness of a new start would occur more often. Doldrums would be less likely to set in. Attendance would improve as appointments, vacations, etc. could be scheduled more easily around school hours. Teachers would be better prepared, providing more efficient lessons and more complete feedback to students.

Strengths: Truly demonstrates the value of life long learning, more efficient use of buildings and staff.

Weaknesses: May not be "politically correct" to make requirements of parents or to break tradition.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director, Fairtest: FairTest's Massachusetts affiliate, the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE), has long advocated a model state assessment system as an alternative to high-stakes testing. Such an approach features:

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Local assessments -- including portfolios, exhibitions and performance tasks -- as gateways to graduation, which are approved by regional boards and based on essential state standards.

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Regular school quality reviews by well-trained outside monitors assessing the effectiveness of local educational practices and intervening if performance benchmarks are not met.

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Limited, low-stakes standardized testing in reading and math as one data source for the external reviews.

{lsaquo}{sbquo}Annual reports to stakeholders that include multiple measures of school quality and academic progress.

In this decentralized system of genuine accountability, state and federal agencies play a resource and monitoring role. They check on the accuracy of local assessments and provide improvement tools rather than dictating a "one size fits all" plan to every school and community.

Strength: Builds quality into educational programs by starting with classrooms and teachers rather than assuming that better performance can be imposed through state-level tests and sanctions.

Weakness: Not a "magic bullet" approach that attracts cynical politicians because it can fit on a bumper sticker.