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The Common Core: Are We Talking Apollo 11 or HealthCare.gov?

Posted by on in Education Policy
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Last July 20 we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11's giant leap for mankind. I remember watching Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's historic moonwalk on a black and white TV in a motel in Alamogordo, N.M. I was 12 and had grown up watching launches and splashdowns of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Dinner conversations included my dad explaining the fire and door failure that killed the Apollo 1 astronauts and my mom explaining how returning capsules had to enter the atmosphere at just the right angle or they would burn up or bounce off into space. On April 11, 1970, Mrs. Reams' language arts class was interrupted by an announcement that the Apollo 13 astronauts had safely returned. After Apollo 17, astronaut Harrison Schmidt, one of the last two humans to walk on the moon, returned to his hometown, Silver City, N. M. and spoke to high school students about the mission. Silver City is my hometown, too. I was in the audience.

In October 1, 2013 HealthCare.gov launched. We all remember what happened next.

In The Key to Successful Tech Management: Learning to Metabolize Failure, Clay Shirky ties the success and failure of those (and other) massive, technology based, federal projects to the practices followed by their creators. He emphasizes that his is not a political piece evaluating the merits of the programs.

Shirky's observations about going to the moon and launching HealthCare.gov offer a means to judge the implementation of the Common Core.

Now, I know the Common Core is not a federal project. But it is certainly a massive technology-based project of nation-wide significance that includes federal incentives, government bureaucracies, commercial interests, a divided public and profession, and the media spotlight. So, I think it's fair to critique how states roll out the CCSS using Shirky's standards.

I've rewritten Shirky's main concerns as yes/no questions that can be asked about any state's roll out.

  1. Is there a mechanism to rapidly report significant problems?
  2. Will the state's Common Core technology be slick or frustrating?
  3. Is the state's roll out a reasonable combination of features, quality, and deadlines?
  4. Do competing imperatives of broad scope with reduced timelines threaten the roll-out?
  5. Does the state's request for proposal for assessments allow small vendors to compete fairly with large vendors?
  6. Has the state made sure that the talent necessary for implementation is being deployed appropriately?
  7. Shirky argues that overly meticulous planning eliminates flexibility too soon.The biggest challenge is not eliminating uncertainty but adapting to it. Is the state generating detailed standards and timelines too far in advance?
  8. Is the state practicing "Agile Development" and "Test-driven Development"- the processes of dividing a project into small, testable chunks, with progress continually monitored and plans continually updated?
  9. Is the state avoiding a single, fixed plan to be delivered long down the road?
  10. Does implementation test the state's assumptions and produce new information that can inform planning?
  11. Is the state avoiding the embarrassment of unsupported claims?
  12. All new work involves failures and failures can be useful learning opportunities. Will failure be penalized?
  13. Are penalties in place for opacity and information hoarding?

I'm moving from being a cautious supporter of the Common Core to being a conditional supporter. I'm watching and using Shirky's criteria to evaluate how well the standards are implemented in my state (Arizona). I have no doubts that success or failure will be traced back to the process of how well the state rolled out the Common Core.

(This post originally appeared in my Digressive Discourse blog on the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory. Minor changes have been made for clarity.)

For more on the Common Core, see:


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August "Sandy" Merz III, NBCT has taught design and algebra and other STEM subjects at Safford K8 IB World School in Tucson, Arizona since 1987. In 2010 he earned his National Board Certificate in Career and Technical Education. Shortly after that he became active in the teacher leader movement, particularly with the Arizona K12 Center and the Center for Teaching Quality. He writes the Digressive Discourse blog (http://ow.ly/Kpd0O) for CTQ and contributes to Stories from School Arizona (http://ow.ly/KpmOu). His articles have appeared in ED Week, Kappan, Ed Horizons, and Go Teach. Follow Sandy on twitter @amerziii

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