What do the the eduction and financial crisis have in common? Both suffer from misplaced incentives leading to unintended consequences. 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is becoming a living proof that federal meddling in education policy is a bad idea. Rather than transferring more power to to the Feds, America’s children would be best served if more power were given into the hands of those people who naturally care most  about them: parents.

In a recent article, Barbara Keshishian calls for an end to NCLB because she fears the worst consequences are yet to come. She calls No Child Left Behind Unsound Educational Policy, because the Act provides incentives for schools, scrambling for federal money, to train students to succeed on test-scores, rather than to actually learn subjects comprehensively. 

No Child Left Behind is a case study in the triumph of sound-bite politics over sound education policy. With its much-heralded emphasis on “accountability,” it was an easy sell politically. But its bipartisan boosters failed to ask the critical question, “accountability for what?”


Not more learning, but higher test scores. Not more effective instruction, but higher test scores. Not better prepared students, but higher test scores. Not educating students to be better citizens, but just higher test scores.[…][No Child Left Behind] is destructive to a generation of students who are being shortchanged in their education, denied the broad, comprehensive education that would serve them best in life because of the short-term need for higher test scores every spring.

Keshishian draws an analogy to the financial sector, arguing that the focus on short-term gains over long-term stability was partially responsible for the financial meltdown. She fears that NCLB is setting America up for a much worse educational crisis than we’re already experiencing.

We should take a lesson from the meltdown of the financial sector, where misplaced incentives led to unwanted results. When executives and traders were rewarded on the basis of short-term outcomes – higher quarterly profits or ever-increasing stock prices – they found ways to reach those goals, for a while. They made ever riskier bets in the hope of immediate gains. They pursued strategies to maximize profits today, at the expense of the long-term health of their companies and well-being of their shareholders.

We all know how that thinking turned out on Wall Street, and we have all been left holding the bag for the ill-advised decisions that were made because incentives were offered for the wrong behaviors.

We cannot let that happen to our students. Parents already recognize the toll that testing mania has taken on the quality of their children’s education. By linking rewards and punishments to standardized test scores, as No Child Left Behind does already and Gov. Chris Christie wants to do to a much greater extent, we will ensure ever-greater focus on test preparation but do nothing to encourage the innovation and creativity that will lead to better student outcomes and a better education.

America’s children should not be subjected to centralized education experiments, such as NCLB, because the unintended consequences have unacceptably far-reaching results. Experimentation with creative and innovative methods to teaching, enhancing accountability, and raising student academic achievement is best done on a local level where learning about consequences can occur almost instantly, and stakeholders are able to reverse or adjust course more quickly.Thus, control over education policy should be in the hands of local stakeholders. In particular, increased school choice and parental control are the most promising strategies to reverse the education crisis in America.  

Leaving a generation of children behind, when federal education policy turns out to be a failure, is morally impermissible, and economically disastrous.