Forward Into a Foggy Future

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education Policy

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I’ll make a claim: No matter how well informed, unbiased, smart, and well-meaning you are, you still have been wrong over and over in what you consider to be true regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Too much is changing too fast to be sure that what you know today, and your attendant opinions, will still hold up tomorrow. And that is unlikely to change anytime soon. And that makes it terrifically difficult to develop any plans for how schools will open up again in the fall.

At the time of this writing, the aspiration in Arizona is to open schools next year, but there is no clear vision about what that will look like, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman. The Department of Education is consulting with stakeholders and aims to have a framework announced by the end of May.

My guess is that the success of any reopening will be inversely proportional to its specificity, the speed in which it is implemented, and the degree of central planning upon which it is based. Conversely, an opening that starts small, progresses slowly, features sensitivity to local circumstances, and can adapt quickly to changing circumstances will prove to be the most effective.

To help create such a flexible framework, policy-makers, from classroom teachers to the state superintendent should follow would do well to read,The Key to Successful Tech Management: Learning to Metabolize Failure, by Clay Shirky. In the article, written in 2014, Shirky identifies principles that led the success of the Apollo missions to the moon and were avoided in the development and disastrous release of The principles were to:

1) Create a means to rapidly report problems

2) Develop a meaningful relationship between details and deadlines

3) Have the talent needed for implementation

4) Adapt to uncertainty, don’t eliminate it

5) Avoid detailed standards and timelines

6) Implement features in small, testable chunks

7) Use early outcomes to inform later improvements

8) Avoid a single, fixed plan

9) Avoid making unsupported claims

10) Reward risk taking and don’t punish failure

Each of these principles requires going slowly, learning from each step, and being open and honest about missteps. And that’s exactly what will be needed in an environment in which everyone will be wrong, over and over. So another claim I’ll make is that adhering to Shirky’s principles will prove the most efficient way to successfully move our schools forward into a very foggy future.

 Note: I’ve written twice previously about using Shirky’s article as a means to judge how successfully states implement the Common Core – here and here.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 3

  1. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    So many truths to this. How many times have we all been wrong in the past few months, many.

    That advice is all excellent. However, I will speak to specifically this; 3) Have the talent needed for implementation

    I am most worried about having the talent for implementation if we do not work together. Schools are typically pretty lean agencies, especially rural schools. There isn’t always that talent needed to support implementation because there is just the front line. Although some larger districts have the resources to plan for multiple plans and train for different possible openings, that is not a reality for many schools. So as we plan for whatever it is we are planning for, we have to work together, so we have the talent we need for effective implementation.


    Thank you for this information. We are all in wonder about how the fall will look. In addition to developing a plan with any hopes of success, there is the actual implementation, which will most likely take another length of time for preparation, modification, and resource gathering to be done correctly. Which means that part should be happening now…in order for teachers and parents and staff to learn and understand and prepare before school starts. Which concerns me even more.

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