NCTM Standards 1989: A Play in Three Acts

In my Nature of Math and Math Education class last week we examined bits of the landmark 1989 NCTM release of the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. I'm quite familiar with those standards, as several of my undergraduate professors were members of the working groups and my advisor coordinated the NCTM Addenda to the Standards project. What fascinated me was that the members of my class played out the reaction of the math community as if they were actors in a play. I don't know if our professor, David Webb, planned it that way, but even if he had it wouldn't have worked out better than it did.

ACT I: Introduction of the Players
We started by looking at the members of the commission and working groups, noting that a broad set of interests were represented and several were authors of texts that don't meet the goals of the Standards. We moved on to the massive lists of endorsers, supporters, and allies. With so many people on board, the Standards must represent a consensus, right?

ACT II: Areas of Increased/Decreased Attention
Our class organized ourselves in small groups to analyze the list of topics to receive increased and decreased attention. It generated a great deal of conversation and disagreements started to brew. The elementary band (K-4) seemed to generate the least disagreement, and our elementary teachers in the room felt like what they were doing in their classrooms reflected the changes proposed in the Standards. Dr. Webb noted that international testing shows that our 4th graders are more competitive than our older students, and asked the class to consider if that had anything to do with elementary instruction adhering to the Standards.

ACT III: The Reaction and Overreaction
A few students in the class started to voice their disagreement with certain topics of decreased attention. "What do you mean, no conic sections?" "How can you learn geometry without knowing vocabulary?" "No two-column proofs? That's crazy!" Just as in the real math wars, this backlash exaggerated "decreased attention" to mean "no attention." Some students seemed to vision a world where every kindergardener became a slave to their calculator, and even the basics of arithmetic became a waste of time under the view of the NCTM. Even with Dr. Webb trying to put of the fires by emphasizing that "decrease" never meant "eliminate," students still expressed their worries about topics they thought were going away.

And just as many people did with their copies of the NCTM Standards, we never looked beyond the lists of topics for increased and decreased attention. I believe the NCTM managed to salvage the Standards effort through the Addenda project, Standards 2000, and the Focal Points, but it's amazing how many of the first impressions linger on, and how new first impressions are so similar to those seen 20 years ago.