Dorn vs. Oliver

In May 2015, more than three years ago, the major segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight focused on standardized testing. Eighteen minutes is a lifetime on television, and in his segment Oliver argued that testing was not worth the pain or money. Critics in education policy world responded with serious quibbles, because I guess then we were fact-checking comedians. Yes, that’ll stop Abbott and Costello: explain that there really is no team where Who’s on first. But in 2015, we had this quaint notion that checking facts could shame those who didn’t speak the truth.

Oh, how we wish that had turned out to be so.

For myself, I liked how Oliver put the cover of my colleague Audrey Amrein-Beardsley’s 2014 book on screen for several seconds. But now I’m steaming mad. In the past 40 months he hasn’t talked about any of my other colleagues! Hey, John: there are dozens of other colleagues in my college you haven’t yet cited!

So I’m taking my revenge. There is one overwhelming reality about Oliver’s segment on testing and accountability: it was joke-thin. Eighteen minutes of arguments about the value of and problems with test-based accountability, and by my count Oliver made 28 jokes. That’s one joke every 39 seconds.

That’s shameful. One joke every 39 seconds. That’s almost like Oliver and his entire team of writers were the same as a middle-aged academic dad who needs more than three years to write a mediocre comedy routine.

Oh, wait! I’m a middle-aged academic dad, and it’s been more than three years since Oliver’s segment on standardized testing. I think that means I need to write a comedy routine, to see if I can do better than John Oliver.

So here’s my alternative to John Oliver’s take on education policy. There is absolutely no policy-relevant point to it, except I’ve written something that has a joke every 15 seconds, and yes of course it has a policy-relevant point to it because why would I compete with John Oliver if I didn’t want to make a point. I mean a point beyond the fact that a middle-aged academic can write more education jokes than John Oliver and his entire writers room.

I will admit I’m cheating. I’m not actually producing this. It’s just a script. And I’m not putting it in my voice, or even the nasally British twang of John Oliver. You will notice that I wrote this as if it were presented by a certain former persona on Comedy Central who has the same name as Stephen Colbert.1 So I’m assuming that some talent is delivering this.

But the bottom line is, John Oliver writes education jokes worse than a middle-aged academic who just spent his entire summer in the broiler known as Phoenix. So take that, late-night comedians: cite my colleagues or you will discover the Wrath of Dorn!

It’s the start of the school year, and children are going back to school. Schools are important. We expect schools to cure poverty, restore the balance of trade, and be substitutes for dysfunctional families.

Nation, this is wrong. Schools have to stop usurping the role of the traditional family.

Which brings us to tonight’s Word.

[On screen: THE WORD – CHILDREN.]

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“The Word: Children”           

Children, or the best reason to be sanctimonious when telling other people what to do.

I know what you’re thinking. “Stephen, don’t you have children of your own?” Why, yes, I do, which is why I’m here tonight.


They are real children, who are sucking away my money and vitality as I speak. But right now, I’m talking of Children, the idea of pure innocence that we can all agree on.

And we try to protect that innocence. We make lots of decisions in this country based on the fact that we adults know better. That’s why we tell children when to go to bed, when to pick up their toys, and when to go to school.


But we don’t always agree on what should happen in schools. All I care about personally as a parent is that my children are out of the house thirty-five hours a week.


But as a public figure, I care deeply about what happens with your children. And that’s why I have solid beliefs about what your children should be learning in school.

Unfortunately, in recent years the wrong people got to dictate what your children should be learning. They’re called the Common Core State Standards.

It was put together by a secret cabal of educators and policymakers that had input from teachers and states and received more than 10,000 comments on a draft and put everything online.


And the Common Core State Standards were an attempt by the federal government to impose awful things on states and local schools. Awful things like, children should learn fractions on the number line. Who knows where stuff like that might lead?


But it gets worse. The Common Core State Standards say that in their senior year of high school, about 70 percent of what high school students read should be “informational text.” 70 percent so-called informational text is exactly what socialists want our children reading.

Centralized, Pravda-like reading lists.

I demand balance. If Common Core wants students to be reading 70% informational text, I say students should also be reading 70% disinformational text.

And don’t tell me that adds up to more than 100 percent.


Don’t your children deserve more than 100 percent of the best things to learn?

As I said, the federal government has the wrong people deciding what your children should learn, which is why we should put that power instead in the hands of the right people.

Fortunately, since the majority of state governments are in the hands of Republicans, we just need to turn what’s taught completely back to the states.


State governments can edit those standards a little bit – you know, replace science and history facts with the science and history I know in my gut.

I mean, who needs to learn about pesky things like climate change or the history of slavery?


And states can retitle the new standards to hide the fact that most of the standards are the same as the Common Core.


We also need to get rid of the new generation of standardized testing, which no one likes. There have been all sorts of complaints about computers not working and tests being scored incorrectly. It’s not that I don’t want to be able to evaluate schools. I know in my heart that while my child’s school is good, your child’s school is awful. We just need to create the facts to justify our complaints.


The problem is with how standardized testing has been used recently. We use it to blame teachers, or praise them, or use it to refuse to pay them more money. But nation, we should not have a love-hate relationship with our teachers. That’s the relationship we should have with our parents.

Moreover, the new tests are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and there is a huge risk that if enough children take the tests, we’ll find out what they know.

Instead, we need to return to the good old days of standardized testing, when we had no clue what the results meant, but they were numbers! That’s all we need, some numbers. Numbers that we can quote and say, “This shows how bad public schools are!”

Just as long as there is some country whose name I cannot pronounce, whose test scores are higher than those of our kids.


Now, critics of standardized testing say that instead of blaming schools, we need to have better funding for schools. Nation, I learned that this is wrong from my friend, conservative former Kansas Governor and current Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. When he was governor of the great state of Kansas, he deeply cut funding for public education, because he believes schools can always do more with less.

So the more we cut, the higher test scores will be. And test scores will go through the roof if schools have no funding at all.


You see, nation, there’s a right way and a wrong way to care about children. The wrong way is to believe that taxes should go to support public schools and children while they’re young. The right way is to subsidize coal-mining, which will kill them but only after they have grown up.

Asking what funding is necessary to support good schools is the wrong question. The right question is, how long can I keep my tax cuts?


But I admire these arguments. They’re trying to appeal to our values, and I get it. I’m a values guy. I just refuse to believe that rich people like me should pay for those values.

But nation, I know we’re suckers for anything with the C word. For the Children. Think of the Children. Child-Saving. Free-Range Children.


Our attention can be diverted by Facebook images of adorable eight-year-olds. You can get us to do anything if we connect it to children. And I respect that.

Some might say this is a weakness. I say it is a strength. It is capitalism’s strength, the freedom to be manipulated by our emotions.


And that’s why children matter: talking about children yanks at our gut, and that’s always the best way to make decisions in our Republic.

And that’s tonight’s Word.


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  1. Or perhaps his twin cousin, or twin grandson, or twin uncle. []