Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 5 of 6, Making a Draft Widely Available for Review; Publishing and Promoting)

(See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this six-part series.)

So far this series has described the first three of six characteristics of the policy process I outlined in Part 1. This installment will look at the next two characteristics. Despite their shorter descriptions, both were critical in NCTM's effort to have the Standards see wide adoption.

Making a Draft Widely Available for Review

There was one aspect of the Standards draft review process that had significant policy implications. Instead of just sending drafts to a limited number of outside experts, as is often the norm in such cases, NCTM sent out 10,000 copies of the 1987 draft to more than fifty other groups with interests in mathematics education (McLeod, 2003, p. 779). Every single page of the draft contained room for comments, and the working groups received comments by the thousands. Not only did such wide distribution create anticipation for the final draft, the NCTM garnered the support of sixty organizations whose names were printed in the opening pages of the final draft (NCTM, 1989, pp. vi-viii). Listing as endorsers the American Mathematical Society, the American Statistical Association, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Mathematical Sciences Education Board helped moderate the opinion by some that mathematicians were excluded from the Standards writing process.

In the end, the Standards incorporated the perspectives of many people and organizations, but not without compromise. Building consensus while being provocative is a tricky balance, something to which Michael Apple (1992) applied the term "slogan system," meaning they were

a statement of goals that was specific enough to provide direction to the field, vague enough to be acceptable to most mathematics teachers, and novel enough for its vision to catch the attention of the many different groups having a stake in mathematics education. (McLeod, 2003, p. 783)

Publishing and Promoting

While the public relations campaign undertaken by the NCTM to promote the Standards may not have been notable from Mary Lindquist's perspective as a writer (see the difference between her four characteristics and my six in Part 1), it certainly deserves attention as a matter of policy. Without a massive effort, the immediate and lasting policy influence of both the NCTM and the Standards would have certainly been reduced. By the time of publication in March 1989, the total expense of the Standards project had reached approximately $1,000,000, far exceeding the initial estimate of $258,000 (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 44). Included in the million-dollar total was $200,000 in expenses paid to public relations firms. Without this and continuing effort, the worry was that the Standards would be resigned to "sit on shelves" (Lindquist, 2003, p. 840), where all but a few curious graduate students would ever look at them again.

The public relations efforts had all the signs of a six-figure expense (McLeod et al, 1996, pp. 15-16). First, NCTM leadership, including President Shirley Frye and Tom Romberg, were coached to improve their ability to positively present themselves and to handle tough questions gracefully. They then hosted a press conference in Washington D.C. for about 200 members of the media. NCTM leaders made appearances on the Today Show and other major news programs and Astronaut Sally Ride was brought in to help by lending her endorsement. A video featuring jazz musician Wynton Marsalis describing the Standards was "shown over 6000 times by 121 television stations, reaching an audience in the millions" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 64).

Perhaps most significant was how many copies of the Standards the NCTM had arranged to give away. Unlike the Agenda's relatively short 30 pages, the Standards were 258 pages in length. Still, the NCTM gave away a copy to each one of their 51,000-plus members, as well as anyone and everyone who might have influence but wasn’t an NCTM member. Judith Sowder, Standards Coordinating Committee chair, remembered:

The mailing lists were enormous. The NCTM lobbyist took [the Standards] around personally and handed them to members of Congress. Certainly every dean of sciences, every chair of a mathematics department, every math coordinator, high school principal, and elementary school principal who was on our mailing lists got one. We sent to PTA presidents, school board presidents, and on and on and on. Every mailing list that could possibly be used was used. (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 63)

While the size of this giveaway represented a huge cost to NCTM, it was necessary to ensure widespread adoption. Fortunately for NCTM and their budget, by 1995 more than 258,000 copies of the Standards had been distributed, including the giveaways, and the $25 cost per purchased copy made up for the lost revenue and helped pay for the expenses of the project (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 63).

Now that NCTM had written, published, and promoted the Standards, the last important piece was to make sure they played a part in future efforts. In Part 6, we'll look at how the NCTM focused efforts around the Standards, and I'll wrap up the series with some reflection.


Apple, M. W. (1992). Do the standards go far enough? Power, policy, and practice in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 23(5), 412-431. doi:10.2307/749562

Lindquist, M. M. (2003). My perspective on the NCTM Standards. In G. M. A. Stanic & J. Kilpatrick (Eds.), A History of School Mathematics (pp. 819-842). 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 Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.