79 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 932 (2004)
The Perverse Incentives of the No Child Left behind Act

handle is hein.journals/nylr79 and id is 946 raw text is: THE PERVERSE INCENTIVES OF
THE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT
JAMES E. RYAN*
This Article examines the No Child Left Behind Act, which may be the most impor-
tant federal education law in our nation's history. The Act is supposed to increase
academic achievement in schools across the nation, raise the performance of disad-
vantaged students to the level of their more affluent counterparts, and attract quali-
fied professionals to teach in every classroom. These goals are obviously laudable.
As Professor Ryan explains, however, the Act creates incentives that actually work
against their achievement. Specifically, the Act unintentionally encourages states to
lower their academic standards, promotes school segregation and the pushing out
of poor and minority students, and discourages good teachers from taking jobs in
challenging classrooms. Should any or all of these effects occur, achieving the Act's
goals will be more difficult, not less. Professor Ryan goes on to suggest a solution,
albeit a partial one, to the problems created by the No Child Left Behind Act.
Rather than focus on absolute achievement levels as the basis for school accounta-
bility, Ryan argues that the federal government and states should focus on rates of
growth. Doing so would not only give a more accurate picture of school quality,
and thus provide a fairer basis for school accountability; it would also diminish or
eliminate the perverse incentives created by the No Child Left Behind Act. The
Article concludes with a brief discussion of what the No Child Left Behind Act can
teach us about the proper role of the federal government in education law and
policy.
INTRODUCTION
The No Child Left Behind Act, perhaps the most important fed-
eral education law in our nation's history, is at war with itself. The
chief goals of the Act are to boost academic achievement across the
board and to eliminate the achievement gap among students from dif-
ferent backgrounds.1 To accomplish these goals, the Act requires
* Copyright © 2004 by James E. Ryan. William L. Matheson and Robert M.
Morgenthau Distinguished Professor, University of Virginia School of Law. Thanks to
Dale Ballou, Jack Boger, Charlie Clotfelter, Anne Coughlin, Michael Heise, Rick Hess,
John Jeffries, Mike Klarman, Daryl Levinson, Robert L. Linn, Liz Magill, Tom Nachbar,
Tom Saunders, Elizabeth Scott, Scott Shapiro, Paul Stephan, Bill Stuntz, Lauren Wetzler,
and the participants in workshops at George Washington University and the University of
Virginia Law Schools for helpful discussions and comments on earlier drafts. Thanks as
well to Monika Moore, Tim Doherty, and the librarians at Virginia and Yale Law Schools
for excellent research assistance.
I See No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001 § 1001, 20 U.S.C. § 6301
(Statement of Purpose); see also CTR. ON EDUC. POL'Y, FROM THE CAPITAL TO THE
CLASSROOM: STATE AND FEDERAL EFFORTS TO IMPLEMENT THE No CHILD LEFT BEHIND
AcT, at iii (2003) [hereinafter CTR. ON EDUC. POL'Y] (describing purpose of NCLBA),
available at http://www.ctredpol.org/pubs/nclb-full-report-jan2003/nclb-full-report-jan
2003.pdf.
932

Imaged with Permission of N.Y.U. Law Review

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