Opinion
Federal Opinion

Rethinking a Bad Law

By Nel Noddings — February 23, 2005 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

My thesis is simple: The No Child Left Behind Act is a bad law, and a bad law is not made better by fully funding it. Let’s see if I can make a convincing argument to support that thesis.

1. School people all over the country are involved in (or have authorized) studies to figure out what this federal law will cost. In some cases, the cost is thought to be so high that it would be better to reject federal funds than to accept them. This point, however, will not clinch my argument, because all laws require funds for implementation, interpretation, and revision. The question remains whether the likely results are worth the cost.

2. The law employs a view of motivation that many of us in education find objectionable. As educators, we would not use threats, punishments, and pernicious comparisons to “motivate” our students. But that is how the No Child Left Behind law treats the school establishment. This powerful objection is still not enough to carry my argument, because there are people—perhaps even a substantial number of educators—who accept the carrot-and-stick theory of motivation. How else, they ask, can you get the kids to master long division and the dates of all our wars? But I hereby register a complaint in the name of those educators who have successfully used more humane methods.

As educators, we would not use threats, punishments, and pernicious comparisons to ‘motivate’ our students. But that is how this law treats the school establishment.

3. The high-stakes testing associated with the law seems to be demoralizing teachers, students, and administrators. We need more documentation on this but, in talking with people all over the country, I hear stories of sick and frightened children, dispirited teachers, and administrators disgusted with the strategies they must use to meet (or evade) AYP, the adequate-yearly-progress requirement. A good law does not demoralize good people.

4. The curriculum seems to be suffering. We need more evidence to state this as fact, but reports from many sources are suggestive. If the No Child Left Behind legislation was designed to provide better schooling, especially for poor and minority students, this result is deeply troubling. For it is the curriculum of these children that seems to have been gutted. Wealthier kids, in schools that don’t have to worry so much about test scores, may still enjoy arts, music, drama, projects, and critical conversation. But poor kids are spending far too much time bent over worksheets and test-prep materials. If this is happening on a wide scale, and if the “No Child” law is directly responsible, my argument is already solid. But there is more.

5. Our poor and minority students are hurt again by the high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind. Disproportionately, they are the kids who are retained in grade, forced into summer school (for more test prep), beaten down by repeated failure, and deprived of a high school diploma. If we really wanted to help poor, inner-city kids, we would not try to do so by imposing a bad law on everyone. We would identify the problem and muster massive resources to solve it: provide money to renovate crumbling buildings, add clinics (especially dental and vision) to school campuses, provide day care for infants and small children, recruit the finest teachers with significantly higher pay, and even provide boarding facilities for homeless children and those caught in family emergencies. We would establish on-site research-and-development teams (in cooperation with universities) to experiment with, develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate promising practices. Understanding that schools and kids are not all alike, these would be long-term R&D projects serving particular schools—not research projects looking for “what works” universally. We could do these things if we had the will, and if we would stop wasting enormous sums on testing, compliance measures, and the host of activities associated with testing.

6. The law seems to be a corrupting influence. Again, we need more documentation. But reports suggest that cheating has increased at every level, and administrators are busily seeking loopholes, using triage techniques, moving kids around and reclassifying them, playing with data—all to meet the letter of a law whose actual requirements cannot reasonably be met. When a law makes matters worse instead of better, it is time to rethink it. We had to get rid of Prohibition, and we should probably get rid of many of our drug laws, which are obviously a corrupting influence, not a corrective one. If the No Child Left Behind Act is corrupting, we should get rid of it, too.

We should not waste more valuable resources—human and monetary—tinkering with this law. It is a bad law and should be repealed.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as Rethinking a Bad Law

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leading Systemic Redesign: Strategies from the Field
Learn how your school community can work together to redesign the school system, reengineer instruction, & co-author personalized learning.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal What the Federal 'Don't Say Gay' Bill Actually Says
The bill would restrict federal funds for lessons on LGBTQ identities. The outcome of this week's election could revive its prospects.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in front of the Florida State Capitol on March 7, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla. Florida House Republicans advanced a bill, dubbed by opponents as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, rejecting criticism from Democrats who said the proposal demonizes LGBTQ people.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Florida Historic Capitol Museum in Tallahassee on March 7, 2022. Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law was a model for a federal bill introduced last month.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Federal Fed's Education Research Board Is Back. Here's Why That Matters
Defunct for years, the National Board for Education Sciences has new members and new priorities.
2 min read
Image of a conference table.
vasabii/iStock/Getty
Federal Opinion NAEP Needs to Be Kept at Arm’s Length From Politics
It’s in all our interests to ensure NAEP releases are buffered from political considerations and walled off from political appointees.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal Feds Emphasize Legal Protections for Pregnant or Recently Pregnant Students, Employees
The U.S. Department of Education has released a new resource summary related to pregnancy discrimination in schools.
2 min read
Young girl checking her pregnancy test, sitting on beige couch at home.
iStock/Getty Images Plus