Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 3 of 6, Meeting a [Perceived] Need)

(See Part 1 and Part 2 of this six-part series.)

"Exactly where the Agenda's call for action might have led without the appearance of a new crisis is not clear" (Fey & Graeber, 2003, p. 553). If the research and public sentiment regarding mathematics education had looked positive as the country moved into the 1980s, there would have been little need for the NCTM to flex its new policy muscles. But that wasn't the case. Instead, growing concern over the state of math education would give the NCTM a reason to put the Agenda for Action into action.

In the late 1970s, the NSF funded a series of surveys and case studies to determine a baseline of the nation's mathematics performance. The case studies indicated that most classrooms were still exhibiting a traditional view of mathematics and showed little influence of the new math efforts of the 1960s (McLeod, 2003, p. 757). Furthermore, early results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) raised doubts that students were able to perform anything but the most basic mathematical tasks.

Less publicly visible but yet of concern to mathematics educators was the continued trend towards "basic" math textbooks. In particular, the claims of outspoken textbook author John Saxon "became a preoccupation of NCTM leaders" (McLeod, 2003, pp. 760-761). Saxon (1982), in a three-page Phi Delta Kappan article, made boisterous claims about the effectiveness of his textbooks. The article lacked a description of how (or if) the treatment and control groups were randomized, what textbooks were used by the students in the control group, how the assessment used to measure students' learning was constructed, and failed to use any real statistical tests. It did, however, include the address of the publisher and the cost of his textbook, as well as statements like, "A general scanning of the scores suggests that gifted students who used the normal textbooks were severely damaged and that less gifted students who used the normal textbooks were destroyed" (p. 484).

NCTM’s Research Advisory Committee (RAC) fielded concerns over Saxon's claims, some requesting censure of Saxon's texts and others requesting further research regarding the effectiveness of the Saxon texts. John Dossey, NCTM president from 1986-1988, recalled that "RAC members felt that it was inappropriate for professional groups to censure material, especially in the absence of an agreed-upon set of standards" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 31). Concurrently, NCTM's Instructional Issues Advisory Committee (IIAC) was considering the creation of a document that could be used by schools when selecting textbooks. Jim Fey, an IIAC member at the time, said, "There was some concern from several places that textbooks, and therefore curricula, were being driven by non-professional considerations, political log rolling, and so on" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 31). The RAC and IIAC were already considering such a textbook selection document in the spring of 1983 when a much more public educational crisis would demand the attention of the NCTM.

In April the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983) published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. This critical document used Cold War-era language combined with threats of losing our nation's economic competitiveness to assert that it was imperative that schools change to meet the nation's growing needs. A Nation at Risk convinced many that an increase in the amount rigorous coursework required in schools, specifically in mathematics and science, should be a top national priority. While there is substantial evidence suggesting that the nation wasn't any more "at risk" than it ever had been (Berliner & Biddle, 1995), the perception of risk was more important than the truth.

By the end of 1983, two small conferences were held to determine the math education community's response to A Nation at Risk. Only sixty-eight people attended in total, with only six people attending both conferences (McLeod, 2003, p. 767). One of those six people was Tom Romberg, the University of Wisconsin professor who would later be named chairperson of the NCTM Standards Commission. Among the recommendations to come out of those conferences was the organization of a group who could write a set of guidelines specifying qualities of a proper mathematics curriculum (Romberg & Stewart, 1984).

Romberg remembered that "A Nation at Risk served primarily as a spark plug, a starting point for people" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 27). Others downplayed the influence of A Nation at Risk. Mary Lindquist claimed "The Standards came mainly from within mathematics education rather than as a reaction to A Nation at Risk or federal policies" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 37). The deciding measure of A Nation at Risk's impact might be found in the Standards themselves, in the first line of the first paragraph of the Introduction: "These standards are one facet of the mathematics education community's response to the call for reform in the teaching and learning of mathematics" (NCTM, 1989, p. 1). The footnote for that sentence contains the statement "See A Nation at Risk."

NCTM had prepared itself to take a stand on matters of policy and now they had their greatest opportunity. In Part 4 of this series, we'll look at how NCTM organized itself to write the Standards, and the risks they took and avoided in doing so.


Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools (p. 414). New York, NY: Basic Books.

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.

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 Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

Romberg, T. A., & Stewart, D. M. (Eds.). (1984). School mathematics: Options for the 1990s. Retrieved from

Saxon, J. (1982). Incremental development: A breakthrough in mathematics. Phi Delta Kappan, 63(7), 482-484. Retrieved from