About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Thompson: Why That John Oliver Testing Segment Hit a Nerve

My wife kept pestering me to watch John Oliver's 18-minute, hilarious indictment of standardized testing on HBO, but I had a long "to-do" list. Skimming the replies by Alexander Russo, Peter Cunningham and others, I thought they were challenging the substance of Oliver's routine. The Education Post, as usual, countered with some out-of-context numbers, disingenuously pretending that low-stakes test score increases in 1999 were attributable to the NCLB Act of 2001. Then, Cunningham concluded with the standard attack on "self-serving union leaders, and the complacent middle class." 

When I finally found time to watch the video, it became clear that Oliver had done his homework but that that wasn't what drove reformers up a wall. I had previously joked that reformers should have to watch videos of students reduced to tears and explaining how the testing mania had cost them a chance for a meaningful education. Oliver showed videos of the "human consequences" of test, sort, and punish. And, its not pretty. 

The real reason why Oliver hit a nerve, I believe, is that his opening videos were so sickening. Russo, the curmudgeon, sees school testing pep rally videos as "like something you might see on America's Funniest Home Videos." But, to many or most parents and educators, I bet they are viewed as documentation of the repugnant practices that "reform" has inflicted on children. 

Oliver hit a nerve by displaying the repulsive unintended consequences of high stakes testing. Under-the-gun (and I believe otherwise decent and caring educators) are shown mis-educating children, training them to be easily manipulated, outer-directed persons.  He shows children being indoctrinated into compliance. He shows children being socialized into a herd mentality. 

Its hard to say which is more awful - the way that stressed out children vomit on their test booklets or schools trying to root inner-directedness out of children. On the other hand, even reformers should celebrate the way that students and families are fighting back, demanding schools that respect children as individuals. Even opponents of the Opt Out movement should respect the way it embodies the creative insubordination that public schools should nourish.  

Before watching Oliver's indictment of high stakes testing, I assumed that it had merely provoked the standard corporate reform spin machine to spit out its off-the-shelf, pro-testing message. But, I believe this anti-Oliver campaign is more personal than that. How can reformers hear a child tearfully say that she feels like she has been punched in the stomach without accepting blame - or finding others to blame?

 Only if reformers can shift the blame to parents, teachers, and union, then they won't have to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the damage that toxic testing has done to children.

But, reformers need to understand two things. First, their obsession with the punitive is showing. The more they condemn others for not understanding that George Bush was right and "accountability must have consequences," the more they convince the general public that their devotion to reward and punish is bad for children.

Second, we live in the United States of America, not some sort of command and control system imposed by social engineers. Public education is supposed to prepare students to think and express themselves as individuals. Schools aren't a farm club for the corporate world. They shouldn't socialize children into being Organization Men and Women, conforming to dictates from above. Reformers may believe that they know the one right answer, but they should be ashamed of that their policies seek to produce only square pegs for square holes.-JT(@drjohnthompson)     


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

A teacher friend posted on Facebook after the testing was done that she felt like she was torturing children. And this is in California, where things are largely less onerous than some states -- and it's a teacher friend who's oblivious to the political/policy debate and the opt-out movement.

John, I've been wanting to ask you about this. I notice you don't mention Peter Cunningham's anti-Oliver efforts, but when I was looking over his work dispensing $12 million of Eli Broad's dollars to influence social media, you showed up in his stable of bloggers.

Comment, please?

I link to Cunningham's attack. You don't think my toughest criticisms of corporate reform aren't aimed at the Ed Post, do you? Take a look at the vitriol they hurl at me.

You're right, Cunningham is right up top! Have you asked him to take your picture down from his site? Has he given you any money?

My picture is on his web site? You gotta be kidding.
As far as my payments, I'll have to ask my (nonexistent) accountant.

Thank you for writing this article. I think your analysis of the reaction makes sense, and I wasn't aware of how muchoney the Broad Foundation was funneling to Cunningham. Extremely unsettling.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.