Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 2 of 6, Asserting a Policy-Minded Orientation)

From the NCTM's inception in 1920 until the 1960s, the organization "played an important but usually secondary role" (McLeod, Stake, Schappelle, Mellissinos, & Gierl, 1996, p. 18) in mathematics education policy. NCTM's primary role "focused on supporting mathematics teachers through the exchange and promotion of good ideas, not through its influence on educational policy" (McLeod, 2003, p. 759), and many NCTM leaders thought it was best to avoid "positions that might be opposed by some of its members" (McLeod et al., 1996, pp. 18-19). Therefore, during the Sputnik-era calls for reform in the late 1950s and the "new math" era of the 1960s (Fey & Graeber, 2003), organizational leadership from NCTM was insignificant.

Fueled by the battles over the new math and events of the mid-1960s, attitudes at NCTM began to change:

Although the attempt to change school mathematics during the new math era was not very successful, the idea that an activist professional organization could have an impact on society still had some appeal. The change from passive to more active stances was a topic of discussion for many professional organizations during the 1960s and 1970s. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was one source of these discussions. As academics became involved in teach-ins and other protests against the war, there was a natural spread of their concerns into the domain of professional organizations. (McLeod, 2003, p. 758)

NCTM's hands-off policy stance changed in 1966 when the Board of Directors voted to be more willing to assert its position on controversial issues. Reflecting on his thirty-one years (1964-1995) as NCTM Executive Director, James D. Gates (2003) characterized the decision and its effects: "It was a bold step for the Council, to take actions that were more visible in the public sector, leading to the development and distribution of position statements, the publication of guidelines and standards, and testimony before congressional committees" (p. 747).

While the NCTM struggled to use its new policy-minded powers during the 1970s (Fey & Graeber, 2003), the critical turning point came with the election of Shirley Hill as NCTM President in 1978. Joe Crosswhite, NCTM president from 1984-1986, remarked that, "Prior to Shirley's time, you couldn't interest an NCTM president in having a national presence in Washington – an NCTM presence" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 19). Shirley Hill explained that she

felt a certain frustration that we weren't being listened to seriously enough outside our own circles....I remember attending some meeting of the presidents of like organizations in Washington, DC, in the 1970s and noticing the frequent absence of the president of one of our sister organizations. It turned out that he was being escorted by his staff government relations expert in visits to members of Congress. At that time his organization seemed to be very influential in the establishment of federal programs. I thought that we in NCTM should be doing more of these things. I thought that we and most of our sister organizations were being a little naïve about government relations and public relations at that time. (McLeod et al., 1996, pp. 19-20)

In addition to hiring Richard Long, a former lobbyist for the International Reading Association (McLeod, 2003, p. 760), two documents published by NCTM during this time mark NCTM's emerging policy perspective. The first was actually a republishing of a position paper of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM), a sister organization of the NCTM. The paper, A Position Paper on Basic Mathematical Skills (1977), was notable because instead of refuting the "back to basics" theme of school mathematics in the 1970s, it co-opted the language and redefined the meaning of "basic skills" for NCSM's and NCTM's own purpose (Fey & Graeber, 2003, p. 552; McLeod, 2003, p. 761). With this action, NCTM and NCSM showed that both organizations understood the importance of controlling the vocabulary and discourse in educational policy.

The second document published by the NCTM solidified their stance as a policy influencer. The Agenda for Action (1980) was the product of NCTM's Committee for Mathematics Curriculum for the 1980s, chaired by George Immerzeel of the University of Northern Iowa. While only about thirty pages in length and containing eight somewhat non-specific recommendations, the Agenda was NCTM's most prominent and powerful policy document to date, and "laid the groundwork for a major reform effort that continued through the end of the twentieth century" (Gates, 2003, p. 741). Shirley Hill described the context for the Agenda at her 1980 presidential address:

In the 1960s we learned that curriculum change is not a simple matter of devising, trying out, and proposing new programs. In the 1970s we learned that many pressures, from both inside and particularly outside the institution of the school, determine goals and directions and programs....A major obligation of a professional organization such as ours is to present our best knowledgeable advice on what the goals and objectives of mathematics education ought to be....In my opinion, we are approaching a crisis stage in school mathematics. Policy makers in education are not confronting the deepest problems because the public and its representatives have been diverted by a fixation on test scores....We are still battling an excessive narrowing of the curriculum in the name of "back to basics." (Hill, 1980, pp. 473-476, as cited in McLeod et al., 1996, pp. 24-25)

Furthermore, in the introduction of the 1983 NCTM Yearbook, The Agenda in Action, Shirley Hill described the NCTM's implementation of the Agenda in five categories:

  1. Public relations.
  2. Political action.
  3. Support for local efforts.
  4. Collection and dissemination of model programs.
  5. Production of guidelines and instructional resources.

Certainly the first two items in the list would have been far less likely to appear even ten years earlier. The words and actions of Shirley Hill clearly demonstrate the policy orientation NCTM had asserted by the early 1980s. But a willingness to affect policy and an opportunity to affect policy are two different things, and that opportunity would come soon enough. In Part 3 of this series, we'll look at the events that set NCTM to work on the Standards.


Fey, J. T., & Graeber, A. O. (2003). From the New Math to the Agenda for Action. In G. M. A. Stanic & J. Kilpatrick (Eds.), A History of School Mathematics (Vol. 1, pp. 521-558). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Gates, J. D. (2003). Perspective on the recent history of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In G. M. A. Stanic & J. Kilpatrick (Eds.), A History of School Mathematics (pp. 737-752). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Hill, S. (1983). An agenda for action: Status and impact. In G. Shufelt & J. R. Smart (Eds.), The
agenda in action
(pp. 1-7). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

McLeod, D. B. (2003). From consensus to controversy: The story of the NCTM Standards. In G. M. A. Stanic & J. Kilpatrick (Eds.), A History of School Mathematics (pp. 753-818). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

McLeod, D. B., Stake, R. E., Schappelle, B. P., Mellissinos, M., & Gierl, M. J. (1996). Setting the standards: NCTM's role in the reform of mathematics education. In S. A. Raizen & E. D. Britton (Eds.), Bold ventures: Case studies of U.S. innovations in mathematics education (pp. 13-132). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.

National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. (1977). Position paper on basic mathematical skills (p. 4). Minneapolis, MN. Retrieved from

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1980). An Agenda for Action: Recommendations for School Mathematics of the 1980s. Reston, VA. Retrieved from