"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For years, elites in big business, foundations, well-endowed think tanks, and corporate media have conducted a well-financed marketing campaign to impress on the nation’s public schools an agenda of change that includes charter schools, standardized testing, and “new and improved” standards known as the Common Core.
These ideas were sold to us as sure-fire remedies for enormous inequities in a public school system whose performance only appears to be relatively low compared to other countries if you ignore the large percentage of poor kids we have.
But the “education reform” ad campaign never got two important lessons everyone starting out in the advertising business learns: Never make objective claims about your product that can be easily and demonstrably disproven, and never insult your target audience.
For instance, you can make the claim, “this tastes great” because that can’t be proven one way or the other. But when you claim, “your kids will love how this tastes,” and parents say, “my kids think it tastes like crap,” you’re pretty much toast. And you make matters all the worse if you respond, “Well, if you were a good parent you’d tell your kid to eat it anyway.”
Those two lessons seem to be completely lost on advocates behind the menu of education policies currently being force-fed to classroom teachers, parents, and school children across the country. As more Americans take a big bite of the education reform sandwich, more choose to spit it out.
A Heapin’ Helping Of Common Core Propaganda
The latest serving of education reformy slop was served to us in the pages of The New York Times where, first, one of the paper’s All Purpose Pundits David Brooks repeated false claims about the Common Core and denigrated anyone who disagreed with its agenda as being part of a “circus.”
Then the Times published a “news” story that completely ignored any well reasoned criticisms of the Common Core and framed the opposition as mostly a political tactic from rightwing factions of the Republican party.
Many have taken to personal blogs and websites, including Salon, to criticize what Brooks and the Times published.
Education historian and university professor Diane Ravitch wrote at her personal blogsite, “In order to explain a point of view, one must make the effort to hear the voices of critics without caricaturing them. Unfortunately, David Brooks has no idea why anyone would not embrace the Common Core standards.”
In another post, Ravitch blasted the Times report that characterized Common Core opposition as primarily a Republican political issue, noting the paper’s tendency to report on the standards “as though no reasonable person could possibly doubt the claims made on behalf of the Common Core.” She asked, “How can the nation’s ‘newspaper of record’ be so seriously indifferent to or ignorant of the major education issue of our day?”
Louisiana classroom teacher and prolific blogger Mercedes Schneider wrote at her personal site, “Brooks’ opinion is that opponents to CCSS are part of a ‘circus’ … Brooks believes he writes about CCSS from an op/ed perch outside of the Big Top. However, his place is in the ring of the many who support CCSS on the unsubstantiated opinion that CCSS is necessary to American public education.”
Russ Walsh, a retired classroom teacher and reading specialist, took particular offense with Brooks’ statement that “the [new] English standards encourage reading comprehension.” He countered, “As far as the ‘old standards’ go, they varied widely across states, but I have yet to see one that did not address reading comprehension.”
Even some reform enthusiasts had problems with the Brooks column. Writing for Education Week, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute called the writing “ripped from the talking points of Common Core enthusiasts” and “an object lesson in the vapid triumphalism of Common Core boosters.
The Real ‘Middle Ground’ In The Debate
For sure there is no shortage of bizarre conspiracy theory perspective on Common Core coming from right-wing extremists.
But lazy pundits like Brooks notice those criticisms alone and assume that the “sensible” argument is to take up with the Common Core side. A little homework reveals they’ve chosen between two ideological opposites rather than striking the middle ground.
Most American’s aren’t reflexively opposed to education standards or the Common Core per se. As a recent review of polling by Public Agenda revealed, “About 8 in ten parents see having national standards in math and science as helpful. A new survey from the education reform group Achieve shows that 69 percent of voters support implementation of Common Core when presented with a description of it. And support is even stronger among African-Americans, Hispanics, and ‘public school moms.’”
However, “just 16 percent of voters have read or heard ‘a lot’ about the Common Core; and, among those who have, about 4 in ten oppose it … The growing controversy is ‘leaving a more negative ‘impression’ among voters,’” and “the percent of people opposed to the Core nearly doubled between 2012 and 2013.”
Why the change of heart?
The ‘Circus’ Is Making Sense
The Common Core was presented to the nation with unreal expectations from the beginning with claims it was a “game-changer” that would ensure more students do better in school simply by demanding they strive for new and different standards.
Proponents jumped on board the campaign with all sorts of promises that the standards were a civil rights cause, declaring them to be “Brown 2.0″ for education – a reference to Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case mandating racial integration in public schools.
Skeptics pointed out the promise of the Common Core defied common sense, noting, for instance, that “raising the bar” for students who are already struggling is like throwing a kid who doesn’t know how to swim into the deep water and then continuously pulling back the shore.
Those more knowledgeable of the empirical research on standards spoke up too, explaining, as Tom Loveless from the Brookings Institute did in the pages of Education Week, “States have tried numerous ways to better their schools through standards. And yet, good and bad standards and all of those in between, along with all of the implementation tools currently known to policymakers, have produced outcomes that indicate one thing: Standards do not matter very much.” (emphasis added)
Diane Ravitch, who had previously been an advocate for national standards, looked at how the Common Core was being sold to the American public and warned, “To expect tougher standards and a renewed emphasis on standardized testing to reduce poverty and inequality is to expect what never was and never will be … We have a national policy that is a theory based on an assumption grounded in hope.” (emphasis added)
Educators on the ground also sounded warnings about the Common Core, as award-winning Long Island school principal Carol Burris did at The Washington Post. “When I first read about the Common Core State Standards, I cheered, she explained. “I even co-authored a book, “Opening the Common Core.” But her opinion soured as she gradually realized that support for the Common Core included accepting the features that came with it, including more standardized tests that are used to evaluate and fire teachers. Burris realized. “The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted. The well that should sustain the Core has been poisoned.”
More recently, opposition to the Common Core has spread to parents. In New York, thousands of parents and teachers, from the lower Hudson Valley all the way upstate to Buffalo, have packed school auditoriums and demanded changes to current education policies that enforce the new standards. At a recent town hall meeting in Long Island, a classroom teacher charged state officials with “child abuse” and was roundly cheered by an audience of hundreds of disgruntled parents and educators.
All this unrest prompted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to lash out at critics of his agenda by saying they inhabit “an alternative universe” and by demeaning them as “white suburban moms” who are upset at anything that might reveal “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.”
Although Duncan eventually apologized for his remarks, it will do little to quell the anger.
As parent and Connecticut journalist Sarah Darer Littman recently explained, “Democrats from Arne Duncan on down are trying to frame the growing nationwide revolt by parents, K-12 educators, university professors, and child development specialists as ‘Tea Party extremism’ or overwrought ‘white suburban moms.’ … Those of us with older children can see the qualitative difference in curriculum since the Common Core roll out began – and we are not impressed. We’re angered by the loss of instructional time to testing for a benefit that accrues to testing companies rather than our children.”
Clearly, the reformers’ ad campaign is no longer working, their jeering response to opposition has inflamed resistance, and now politicians are feeling the heat generated by the pushback.
A recent review of the state of the Common Core by Education Week found, “a spate of bills in state legislatures calling for the slowdown or abandonment of common-core implementation, or withdrawal from the state assessment consortia designing aligned tests. Although none of the bills that would pull states out of the Common Core so far has garnered enough support to become law – with the notable exception of one in Indiana – a half-dozen states in recent months have pulled out of the coalitions developing common tests.”
The Big Mistake Reformers Make
It’s now obvious that advertising claims behind current education policies like the Common Core were never based on strong objective evidence. More Americans are noticing this and objecting. And politicians are likely to get more circumspect about which side of the debate they lean to.
So what’s an education reformer to do?
So far, the strategy is to churn out more editorial, along the lines of what David Brooks wrote, to exhort Americans to “stay the course” on what is becoming a more obviously failing endeavor.
But as this sloganeering wears thin, we’re likely to get a new and improved “message” from the policy elite – a Common Core 2.0, let’s say, or a “next generation” of “reform.”
What’s really needed, of course, is to see the marketing campaign for what it really is: a distraction from educational problems that are much more pressing. Why, for example, focus on unsubstantiated ideas like the Common Core rather than do something that would really matter, such as improve instructional quality, reverse school funding cuts that are harming schools, or address the inequities and socioeconomic conditions that researchers have demonstrated are persistent causes of low academic performance?
But that would require something much more than another marketing campaign. It would mean developing a whole new product.
Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.More Jeff Bryant.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)