Opinion
Federal Commentary

Rethinking a Bad Law

By Nel Noddings — February 23, 2005 3 min read

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.

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

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