The Common Core: Are We Talking Apollo 11 or

Clay Shirky provides a useful rubric for judging your state’s Common Core roll out.

On 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 either 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 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 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.

  • Is there a mechanism to rapidly report significant problems?
  • Will the state’s Common Core technology be slick or frustrating?
  • Is the state’s roll out a reasonable combination of features, quality, and deadlines?
  • Do competing imperatives of broad scope with reduced timelines threaten the roll-out?
  • Does the state’s request for proposal for assessments allow small vendors to compete fairly with large vendors?
  • Has the state made sure that the talent necessary for implementation is being deployed appropriately?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Is the state avoiding a single, fixed plan to be delivered long down the road?
  • Does implementation test the state’s assumptions and produce new information that can inform planning?
  • Is the state avoiding the embarrassment of unsupported claims?
  • All new work involves failures and failures can be useful learning opportunities. Will failure be penalized?
  • 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.


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  • LyndaCurrington

    Apollo 11 and The Common Core

    Thank you Sandy on your excellent distinguished short narrative of your memories of the Apollo space program; namely the celebration of America’s first man on the moon. I think July 20 should be celebrated like we do July 4th so that we won’t forget what we have accomplished. It is so sad that Americans take the entire space program for granted. I try to teach my students as best as I can (the Solar System is not tested in elementary) about the solar system and the US space program. In the past, we have monitored the passing of the ISS over our area – but alas, I haven’t been able to work that in the last few years.

    Which leads me into the Common Core. I honestly think that the CC is a good beginning for our education system but the assessment portion needs a lot of work. We rolled out our progam in KY fairly well, and I feel like we are doing a good job with it, but like anything else it could be better.

    I said all of that to say that your (Shirky’s ??) yes/no questions regarding the roll out AND the standards are a proficient way to assess the program. I look forward to researching that a bit on my own but it is Friday afternoon at 5:30 and my niece tells me that I need to get up from the computer and have some fun. Since its my real last day of Summer Vacation …here I go. LOL Lynda C.


  • SandyMerz

    Conception and Birth

    Thanks for your comment, Lynda. I agree completely – as conceived, the Core is a good beginning, but I fear that, in spite of pilot testing in many places, commercial and political interests are putting on too much pressure to move fast and that we won’t be able to learn from early information. 

    Shirky doesn’t mention the Common Core at all, I just applied it. I hope you get a chance to read it, but family always comes first. I hope you had fun. We started last week. So I’m spening Sunday trying to get ahead in my planning so I can take next weekend off.