NCTM on Standards: Don’t Forget About Us!

By Sean Cavanagh — June 05, 2009 3 min read
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As state leaders and school chiefs from 46 states press ahead with plans for common standards, an organization that has held major sway on how math is taught in this country is asking for a seat at the table.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which has 100,000 members, this week released “Guiding Principles for Mathematics Curriculum and Assessments.” It’s basically a statement describing the organization’s extensive work on standards, and more importantly, its beliefs about the core content and ideas that should guide math teaching. NCTM released voluntary national standards in 1989 and a revised version of them in 2000. For two decades, those documents have shaped how math is taught in classrooms from coast to coast, from elementary through high school.

NCTM has its critics, of course, who accuse it of foisting “fuzzy math,” which strays from basic skills, on teachers and students. But it also has legions of supporters, and there’s no denying the group’s influence. More recently, NCTM in 2006 published “Curriculum Focal Points” which offered focused guidance for how to teach elementary and middle school math. That document won praise from some of NCTM’s former detractors. It was also cited by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel as an important reference document, in its examination of how to prepare students for algebra (the panel also cited the curricula of high-performing countries like South Korea, Japan, and Singapore).

“The continuing discussions about common core standards or a national curriculum should be based on the work that has already been done,” NCTM President Hank Kepner, Jr., said in a statement. “Since any discussion of true national standards relates to the fundamental issue of local control in education, effective policy should be formed by the best current information on mathematics teaching and learning. The development of any curriculum or standards should take advantage of what has already been carefully crafted by a consensus of mathematics teachers, teacher leaders, mathematics educators, mathematicians, and researchers.”

And that investment has already been made by NCTM, he suggests. The “principles” cited by the NCTM include a focused curriculum, connections across grades, and the organization’s definition and understanding of algebra, among other topics. How these ideas would mesh with the ideas put forward by state leaders is an open question.

For instance, at a time when some state and local officials, and business types, are urging that more students take algebra earlier, NCTM’s principles say: “Algebra readiness is determined not at a prescribed grade level but when students exhibit demonstrable success with prerequisite skills. Only then should students focus explicitly and extensively on algebra, either in a course called Algebra 1 or within an integrated mathematics curriculum. Exposing students to such coursework before they are ready often leads to frustration, failure, and negative attitudes toward mathematics and learning.”

I should note that a lot of experts, some of whom very different ideas of how to teach math, share NCTM’s wariness about pushing students into algebra too quickly.

The state and city officials leading the march toward multi-state standards plan to set up a “validation” committee to help shape the process. It’s unclear if NCTM could be a player in that, or in some other informal capacity. My colleague Michele McNeil will have more on the common standards effort in a story this week. What role, if any, do you believe NCTM should have in the effort to create common standards? Or would that somehow complicate the process?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.