John Oliver – This Moment in History Requires a Bigger Vision Than That Of Privileged Anti-Testers

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

May 6, 2015


By Marianne Lombardo

Baltimore burned because black people’s lives are devalued by systematic, institutionalized unfairness in the justice, economic, and education systems. Anger is the manifestation of despair. The Telegraph writes “While black men of all economic backgrounds face many pressures, those without hope for economic opportunity are the most likely to explode.”

Earlier today, I read the story of Tamir Rice’s mother moving into a homeless shelter

(Tamir Rice was the 12 year-old killed by a police officer for playing with a toy guy in a Cleveland park). You can’t believe there’s going to be another life taken or another mother’s heartbreak, and then there is.

Shortly after, I watched John Oliver’s outrage over standardized testing.

The juxtaposition:

Black people are protesting because their children face institutionalized racism. 

White people are protesting because their children have to take a test.

John’s humor – full of hyperbole and hysteria with kids puking and crying, motivational songs and mascots – makes a pretty effective case against the evil corporate profiteers who are purportedly driving the push for better data on student achievement.

Here’s what wasn’t said: Most testing has no high stakes for children within the school system.

The real high stakes come with the lack of economic opportunity that result from educational inequality:

  • 60% of new jobs require some college. Yet, only 30% of low-income students enroll in college right after high school, and only 9% earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25. The biggest barrier? Poor academic preparation.
  • 25% of high school graduates taking the Armed Forces exam don’t have the math and literacy skills to attain the minimum entrance score.
  • 25-33% of America’s high school students are minimally prepared for college academically, and this proportion is even smaller among Black and Hispanic students (20 percent and 16 percent, respectively).

John’s piece included a clip of Florida teacher Luke Flynt opposing value added. Mr. Flynt is president of the teachers’ union and teaches gifted students at a gifted school with one of the highest per capita incomes in the state (and in the top 100 in the nation) and where 87% of the students are white. Only one-fifth-of-one-percent (0.2%) of Florida students are predicted to have better than perfect scores (email, FL Dept of Ed), and the local district is allowed to account for aberrations when calculating their teachers’ ratings (just as the local district sets the policy for student enrollment in advanced classes). The quirk did not affect this teacher’s final effectiveness rating, which is used to determine a raise (here).

The outrage over testing is fueled by those that want to maintain the status quo. The status quo is what is contributing to the vast inequities in our society.

Black and Hispanic parents know that education inequality is part of the problem. Polls consistently show that they support standardized tests (here, here and here). A high-standardized test score can be a golden ticket to a selective high school or a college scholarship.

Dismantling annual standardized testing – and the federal requirement is just 17 tests throughout the Grades 3 to 12 school years – means stepping away from collecting information about the realities in children’s lives. It erases the evidence.

We need to know how many black men are killed by law enforcement.

We need to know how many black children can’t read.

We need to know the schools and teachers that are succeeding and those that aren’t.

That is why 20 Civil Rights Organizations submitted shared civil rights principles for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including maintaining annual, statewide assessments. Yesterday, most of those same groups issued an edict calling out anti-testing advocates for claiming “a false mantle of civil rights activism.”

The judge in the Vergara case (the California case that invalidated teacher tenure and evaluation policies) ruled that equal opportunity means equal opportunity to a quality education. Nothing is more important to a quality education than the quality of teachers. “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Why isn’t the nation shocked by the deliberate disregarded for the future lives of children?

It’s bizarre that in this moment in history we are even considering dismantling the education accountability system which was built by progressive education reformers, starting with Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, as explained by Charles Barone here. We all can do a little more for others. People of privilege can endure a little discomfort and teach their kids that contributing to a greater good is the greatest value. We’re all in this together. Perhaps that, more than anything, is what is missing from the education discourse.