When I was in seventh grade—a year during which I considered it a fashion statement to wear cargo shorts with a Legend of Zelda t-shirt—my school tried to implement a statewide education initiative. The Georgia Performance Standards, as they were called, were designed to promote uniformity of “learning outcomes.” My social studies teacher began each morning by writing the words “TODAY’S LEARNING OUTCOMES” on the whiteboard, followed by a verbatim quotation of the state’s standards (a printed copy of which she kept in a three-ring binder). “Students will be able to trace the empires of Portugal and Spain,” et cetera. She would then proceed to give the same kind of meandering, anecdote-filled, and soporific lecture she always gave, which might or might not have been about the Portuguese and Spanish empires. Sometimes the writing on the board changed day to day; other times it stayed the same. We, the kids, whispered from desk to desk, trying to divine what purpose these oracular pronouncements were supposed to serve.
This sort of badly muddled implementation may be what some critics of the Common Core Stand Standards have in mind when they lodge their complaints. As Elizabeth Green noted in her recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, education reforms often start with the loftiest ambitions and noblest rhetoric, but collapse amid the nitty-gritty details and ingrained habits of actual teaching. There is, however, at least one respect in which this latest go-round may prove to be different: It has generated an unprecedented explosion in new education technologies. While new guidelines typically result in a windfall for the education industry—as textbooks are updated, test items redesigned, and new workbooks printed—it’s rare that these reorderings make much difference in the lives of students. The Common Core, however, has trigged a flurry of innovations that, at the very least, have some intriguing potential.