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Happy Anniversary, Standards!

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March 21, 2014 02:00 pm


Americans have been celebrating some significant anniversaries this year. Over the past few months, for example, there has been a lot of commentary about the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty and the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Another important anniversary deserves attention. Twenty-five years ago this week, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. The 258-page volume has had an enormous influence on the course of American education ever since.

The NCTM Standards were the first attempt to define a consensus view of what students should learn in a key subject area. At the time, “standards” was not a common term in education. California had developed “curriculum frameworks” that outlined what should be taught in core subjects. Kentucky was in the process of developing “learner outcomes.” But most states continued to set out a set of course requirements, without defining what students should learn in those courses.

Once the math group released its standards, that situation began to change rapidly. The George H.W. Bush Administration (led by Diane Ravitch) issued grants to more than a dozen organizations to develop standards in their subject areas. The Clinton Administration followed by enacting the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which issued grants to states to develop standards, and then the Improving America’s Schools Act, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which required all states to pout in place standards, aligned assessments, and accountability systems. (Yes, accountability existed before No Child Left Behind.)

The NCTM Standards had a strong influence on these efforts. By one estimate, the NCTM standards were used as a model by forty states in revising curricula and helped inform the redesign of tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The document also helped inspire other subject-matter organizations to consider the knowledge and skills that were essential in their disciplines. I can remember Governor Roy Romer of Colorado, who was then the chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, waving a well-thumbed copy of the NCTM Standards at every appearance before an education group, exhorting states to adopt them and other subject-matter groups to follow suit.

In time, the NCTM Standards attracted criticism from those who contended that they placed too little emphasis on math facts and procedures. Some of that criticism was aimed more at textbooks that claimed to be aligned to the Standards, rather than to the Standards themselves. In a notable speech, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia lambasted a textbook that he said taught “rainforest algebra”:

I took algebra instead of Latin when I was in high school. I never had this razzle-dazzle confusing stuff… This odd amalgam of math, geography, and language masquerading as an algebra textbook goes on to intersperse each chapter with helpful comments and photos of children named Taktuk, Esteban, and Minh… I still don’t quite grasp the necessity for political correctness in an algebra textbook. Nor do I understand the inclusion of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in three languages or a section on the language of algebra which defines such mathematically significant phrases as “the lion’s share,” “the boondocks,” and “not worth his salt”… From there we hurry on to lectures on endangered species, a discussion of air pollution, facts about the Dogon people of West Africa, chili recipes and a discussion of varieties of hot peppers… what role zoos should play in today’s society, and the dubious art of making shape images of animals on a bedroom wall, only reaching a discussion of the Pythagorean Theorum on page 502.

The NCTM subsequently revised its standards, and while the controversy did not completely die down, the field has reached a general agreement that students should learn procedures, develop conceptual understanding, and be able to solve problems. That agreement formed the basis of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics.

On this anniversary, a few things are worth pointing out. First, for those who claim that the Common Core State Standards represent a “federal takeover” of education, a history lesson is in order. The NCTM could not obtain federal funding for its document; the organization raised private funds. But the subsequent subject-matter standards, under Bush, and the state standards developed in the 1990s, were federally funded. In fact, as Michael Cohen of Achieve has pointed out, the Common Core State Standards are the first state standards that were not federally funded.

Second, the spirit that inspired the NCTM Standards is the same that motivated the development and widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards. There is no “Maryland math” or “Georgia geometry.” All students, regardless of where they live, ought to learn the math they need to succeed beyond high school.

So thank you, NCTM, for getting the standards movement rolling. And happy anniversary, NCTM Standards. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Robert Rothman is senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice (Harvard Education Press, 2013).


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