A Brief History of the ‘Math Wars’

January 22, 2003 1 min read


The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics releases “Currisulum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics.” The document emphasizes that students should understand the concepts underlying the discipline of math as well as be able to perform its basic operations.


The National Science Foundation begins subsidizing 15 projects to write new curricula that conform to the NCTM standards. The independent federal agency eventually spends more than $25 million on the ventures.


Several textbooks and other curricula materials influenced by the NCTM’s standards are published and make their way into school districts.


The California state board of education adopts standards that emphasize basic skills, such as computation and downplay the understanding of concepts advocated by the NCTM.


Richard W. Riley

A panel formed by the U.S. Department of Education declares that 10 math programs are “exemplary” or are “promising” in improving student achievement. All are written to reflect the NCTM standards. A group of critics publishes an open letter to the Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley asking him to withdraw the status bestowed on the programs.


The NCTM publishes revised standards, inserting sections to clarify that basic skills should be taught along with concepts. Critics of the original standards, however, say the changes don’t go far enough.


The National Research Council publishes a report suggesting that the opposing sides in the “math wars” should be able to agree that both basic skills and conceptual understanding be taught and that the camps should be able to compromise.


Achieve publishes a set of “expectations” for the math that 8th graders should learn. The document is the product of a committee that includes NCTM supporters and critics.

President Bush


The Bush administration plans a project that will evaluate research in mathematics education and examine ways to improve the mathematical knowledge of teachers.