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Common Core and New York's Suburban Firewall

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There's a scene in the movie The Ten Commandments, when Ramses II, played by Yul Brenner, is prevented from attacking the Israelites who've fled Egypt for the Promised Land because God places a pillar of fire in between his army and the Israelites encamped on the banks of the Red Sea.

But when the pillar lifts, Ramses continues his pursuit of the Israelites who are proceeding on dry land through the parted waters. For those of you don't know what happens next, read the book or rent the movie on Netflix.

In much the same manner, Arne Duncan, America's chief education officer, has decided to pursue the "white suburban moms" and bring them back to his way of thinking.

My hunch is he will rue the day he told those moms that their kids aren't as smart as they think they are, because as any first-year teacher knows, never, ever tell a mother that her kid isn't smart!

You can tell them they can do better. Tell them they aren't working up to their potential. Tell them that as a teacher, you will try harder. Tell them of all the strategies Charlotte Danielson has enumerated to get them to achieve on a higher level. But tell that mother that her kid isn't as smart as she thinks they are, and she'll intuit that you think she's pretty dumb too.

If Duncan had watched the movie he would have realized that Ramses, who was fond of saying "so let it be written, so let it be done," got himself into trouble with his hardhearted ways because he wouldn't listen to the voice of the people.

Over the past few decades we've gotten ourselves into all sorts of messes because our elected leaders have grown fond of this sort of leadership style. "We have to pass the bill so we can find out what's in it" is today's version of "so let it be written, so let it be done." It is also the contemptuous bipartisan view of our ruling elites.

It can be found in our foreign adventures that have no end game. Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule" advice about invading Iraq without an articulated post-war plan comes to mind. It was ignored. Our education reforms from No Child Left Behind to Race To The Top, Common Core, or the current health care debacle are emblematic of the inability of people in authority to translate wishful thinking into public policy.

Americans have a long history of being lousy at reform. And this seems to be the case whether the ideas are good or bad. We seem predisposed to lurch headlong into a policy initiative without deliberation or planning. For example, Reconstruction and Prohibition are the two great domestic public policy debacles of the 19th and 20th century.

School "reform" was going swimmingly for the Philanthropic-Government Axis as long as they stuck to the urban landscape. Mayor Bloomberg proved that in a city like New York you could dramatically refashion the schools with very little opposition.

That's because the city schools are filled largely with working poor immigrants and a minority underclass, and there was no fear of an articulate public voicing their displeasure.

There was no "public" in the traditional sense and enough seats were provided for middle-class kids in an expanded number of boutique schools to satisfy the middle class.

As New York State Education Commissioner John King is finding out, much to his chagrin, all the education reforms that washed over the cities in the state without much blowback from parents, have hit the suburban firewall.

In the suburbs of New York State, unlike the cities, real estate taxes are directly tied to school funding. The cities have a different education funding formula.

That means homeowners move to communities with a careful eye on how the schools are run, and once they move in, jealously guard the quality and management of those schools.

I live in Great Neck, a tony suburb in close proximity to Manhattan. In the past 15 years or so, a large number of Asian-Americans have moved to Great Neck because of the schools, the fine housing stock, and the short commute to Manhattan.

They are happy with their schools. Their kids are strivers. They don't want John King or Arne Duncan telling them that their kids aren't smart, and they didn't know what they were doing when they moved to Great Neck. They don't want to be told that they are "white suburban moms" either. I'm surprised Duncan left out the "Tiger moms."

The Town Hall meetings conducted by State Education Commissioner King, focusing on the Common Core have encountered a broad-based parental backlash. Undeterred, King has made it clear that their protests have no more impact on his agenda than the fans that scream at the villain at a faux Madison Square Garden wrestling match.

In Western New York, parents, administrators, and teachers, protesting the Common Core's implementation in the city and the suburbs, packed 2,500 people into Buffalo's philharmonic hall. If you've lived in the Buffalo area, you know that's quite a feat for a metro area that has about 1 million people spread over the 1,227 square miles of Erie County.

This outpouring was reproduced downstate in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties too. I suspect that it won't be long before the raw nerves that have been irritated by this ineptitude will start showing up in Governor Cuomo's poll numbers on how he is handling education.

If Duncan, King, and the other state education departments that signed onto Common Core for the Federal pot of gold that was promised them were serious about reform, they would have implemented the curriculum changes year by year until grades K-12 had adopted and adapted to multiplicity of changes. But that's not easy for those who are enamored to "creative destruction" and radical overnight change.

I work in a school were the number of English language learners, or former English language learners, is enormous. Transforming them into the well rounded, 21st century man or woman according to the Common Core is the least of my concerns. Getting them to read and write at grade level is.

Yet their needs don't even show up on the radar screen of these reformers.

This Common Core rollout displays a degree of ignorance and indifference to reality that increasingly defines our ruling elite. So don't be surprised if a populist wave crashes down on them by a citizenry that doesn't want public education in America bent to their whimsy.