Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 1 of 6, Where Curriculum and Policy Meet)

The Common Core State Standards might be the current story, but to gain a broader perspective of this "standards era" of educational reform we would be wise to look at where the era got its start. Over the next six posts, borrowing generously from the work of Douglas McLeod and others, I'll attempt to tell the story of how the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) created the first widely-recognized set of curriculum standards, and the policy process that developed along the way.

NCTM's publication of the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (1989) stands as the landmark event that launched our nation's current era of standards-based educational reform1. While the effect of this effort led to a new period of reform in school mathematics, marked by new textbooks and materials and what has come to be known as the "math wars," the process undertaken by NCTM in writing the Standards has been both praised and panned by critics. Diane Ravitch (1995) claimed the Standards "emerged from a successful consensus process that included many classroom teachers and the nation's leading mathematics educators.... [They are] an example for emulation" (p. 57). Roy Romer (1995), then the Governor of Colorado, said the Standards "were arrived at correctly, from the bottom up. They represent the best thinking in the country, collectively" (p. 67).

Critics were far tougher on NCTM and the process for writing standards for school mathematics. Ralph A. Raimi, a prominent figure in the math wars, claimed that whenever he was asked to help write or review math standards, he'd send the following recommendation:

If your standards were composed without the significant participation of mathematicians, let me advise you to go down to your best state university and find a professor of mathematics, at least 40 years old, who is willing to help you. He need not have heard of Piaget and Bruner, and he might very well be of such a personality that you would never trust him in a fifth grade class, but he should be an English-speaking American who himself has gone through our public school system, and he should be a genuine mathematician who has published at least a handful of research articles in the refereed professional journals of pure or applied mathematics. (Not journals of math education; you have such people in your department of education already.) Find out that this mathematician is willing to devote a few days to your project. Give him a copy of the Fordham Foundation report on the state standards to read....Then give him a copy of your own state's draft standards and ask for written commentary. Then use it. (Raimi, 2000, p. 57)

Raimi's suggested process for writing or reviewing mathematics standards might have some admirers, but it does not reflect the process undertaken by most standards-writing groups who wish to have a lasting impact on education practice and policy. Because the NCTM Standards have had an influence lasting now over twenty years, this series of writings will examine the specific process undertaken by NCTM that led to the publication of the Standards in 1989.

The Standards as a Policy Process

A review of the literature describing the NCTM's efforts can be undertaken from multiple perspectives. Teachers of mathematics might be most interested in the content of the Standards themselves, along with the contrasting arguments that influenced the curricular content emphasized and de-emphasized by the Standards. Historians of education might wish to study the development of the Standards as a sequence of events set in the context of greater educational and societal movements. Those who participated in the writing of the Standards bring yet another perspective of the process, such as that of Mary Lindquist, a member of the Grades K-4 working group that wrote the Standards. In Lindquist's chapter of NCTM's A History of School Mathematics (2003), she describes the effort to develop and promote the standards as having "four fundamental characteristics:"

  1. Accepting responsibility for standards.
  2. Establishing and supporting working groups.
  3. Making a draft widely available for review.
  4. Focusing the Council on standards.

Although any review of the NCTM's standards-writing process will probably be more alike than different, to gain a broader, policy-making perspective, this series of posts will be organized into six areas that share much similarity with Mary Lindquist's fundamental characteristics:

  1. Asserting a policy-minded orientation.
  2. Meeting a (perceived) need.
  3. Establishing and supporting working groups.
  4. Making a draft widely available for review.
  5. Publishing and promoting.
  6. Focusing the Council on standards.

The addition of the first two areas acknowledges that efforts to impact policy are: (a) generally conscious efforts undertaken by an organization and (b) most successful when done in response to a perceived crisis. The fifth area, publishing and promoting, describes the sometimes extraordinary effort an organization must take to make their message heard and to make it lasting.

In Part 2, we'll look at how and why NCTM decided to assert itself in the education policy arena.


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.

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

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1991). Professional standards for teaching mathematics (p. 196). Reston, VA: Author.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1995). Assessment standards for school mathematics (p. 102). Reston, VA: Author.

Raimi, R. A. (2000). Judging state standards for K-12 mathematics education. In S. Stotsky (Ed.), What’s at stake in the K-12 standards wars (pp. 33-58). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Ravitch, D. (1995). National standards in American education (p. 223). Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Romer, R. (1995). Explaining standards to the public. In D. Ravitch (Ed.), Debating the future of American education: Do we need national standards and assessments? (pp. 66-72). Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

  1. Although NCTM’s Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics is just the first in a set of three publications, with the second two addressing the teaching (NCTM, 1991) and assessment (NCTM, 1995) of mathematics, this first document is the most well-known and is frequently referred to simply as the Standards