Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 4 of 6, Establishing and Supporting Working Groups)

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

NCTM's standards-writing process began in 1986 when the Council proposed the creation of a Commission on Standards, chaired by Tom Romberg, and four working groups: grades K-4, 5-8, 9-12, and evaluation. Each working group was chosen for its expertise and consisted of six people, generally a mix of mathematics teachers, state and district math supervisors, mathematics professors from major university mathematics departments, and mathematics education researchers (Lindquist, 2003, pp. 826-827; McLeod, 2003, pp. 772-773). The working groups were somewhat conservative, as radical suggestions would likely make for a less marketable policy recommendation. John Dossey, then president of NCTM, remarked that each group included

somebody who had been around and had a lot of experience – who could represent not a traditional view, but someone who understood the status quo well, who understood the dangers of change, and who was a worker for change, but who knew that you could not just flip a switch and have it happen. (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 46)

While expertise and diversity are generally key ingredients in a policy-making process, a quality that may have been overlooked was the recruitment of quality writers. While some members of the working groups had written textbooks, "neither writing experience nor the ability to produce polished prose was a criterion for selection, and the writing teams often struggled to produce high-quality text" (McLeod, 2003, p. 774). Writing quality was an unexpected struggle during the almost two-year process of writing the Standards.

Although the working groups were tasked with writing standards focusing on mathematical content, they were also mindful of equity issues – including how the inclusion of equity statements might help or hinder the adoption of the Standards. Christian Hirsch, chair of the 9-12 working group, remarked:

I think a careful look at the Standards would show that, in the case of the high school mathematics curriculum, there were two issues that the Standards politically decided not to take a stand on. One was the issue of tracking, and the other was the issue of whether the mathematics studied each year at the high school should be an integrated or unified curriculum, as opposed to a curriculum that was subject-matter oriented each year: algebra, geometry, advanced algebra. That decision was very conscious, in that we felt that we needed to identify in the Standards what we believed at the time in history to be the most important mathematics that all students should have the opportunity to study. And that in itself was advancing thinking on the curriculum quite a ways, because if one looked at the curriculum of the 1970s and 1980s, there was a marked contrast between the mathematics that was in college prep programs and the mathematics that one found in general math, consumer math, remedial courses. We felt it was most important to get out on the table (and over time gain acceptance for) the notion that all kids should be studying different mathematics, rather than getting the Standards caught up in a heated debate over how that mathematics could be organized and made available to students – that is, through sequences of courses that may or may not be tracked. (McLeod et al., 1996, pp. 56-57)

With the exception of a small grant from the AT&T Foundation for $25,000, NCTM chose to finance the writing of the Standards themselves, despite having recently been in significant financial difficulty. The organization had seen its membership fall from 82,000 in 1968 to 56,000 in 19831, and the loss of revenue forced the Board of Directors to consider a proposal to eliminate NCTM's publication program (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 20). Despite the risk of bearing the responsibility for the Standards total estimated cost of $258,000 (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 42) former Executive Director James Gates claimed "the proposal [to fund the Standards] was not submitted to either NSF or the U.S. Department of Education, so that no claims could be made that the federal government had funded the development of curriculum and evaluation standards" (Gates, 2003, p. 742). In addition, the self-funding of the Standards and the decision to not write textbooks, as had been the case during the new math era, afforded the working groups relative independence from textbook publishers. The "corrupting process" (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 33) of working with textbook publishers was a shared concern among the working groups, explained by Arthur Coxford in his chapter in A History of School Mathematics:

Publishers tend to be concerned with the 'bottom line,' whereas curriculum developers desire to try new ideas and organizations. Editors for publishers listen carefully to state textbook adoption committees and to teachers in the field. Neither of these groups was demanding radically different curricula in the 1980s. In fact, they often recommended retaining topics (Cramer's rule or computation using logarithms, for example) long after the usefulness, mathematical or in application, of the topic had diminished. Often it seemed such recommendations were based on an individual's opinion rather than the result of a careful analysis of needs. (Coxford, 2003, p. 613)

While self-funding did afford the working groups a degree of independence and James Gates' statement is at least partially true, the reality of the situation is that the federal government had very little, if any, money to give for a project like the Standards. In 1982, the Reagan Administration has stripped all K-12 funding for mathematics and science from NSF's budget (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 25). Moreover, the same Reagan Administration that had recently sought to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education in the name of local control was not likely to award large sums of money for the development of a national set of curriculum standards. NCTM had applied for a sizable amount of other private money, but the AT&T grant was the only one awarded. Clearly the organization had no other real options but to pay for the Standards itself and use the independence to its advantage, including spinning the effect of that independence as a policy tool.

In Part 5 of this series, we'll look at how NCTM collected and incorporated feedback about the Standards and the measures they took to promote the published draft.


Coxford, A. F. (2003). Mathematics curriculum reform: A personal view. In G. M. A. Stanic & J. Kilpatrick (Eds.), A History of School Mathematics (pp. 599-621). 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.

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. (2013). NCTM at a glance. Retrieved from

  1. Membership began to rebound in 1984. NCTM's membership grew to 118,000 in 1995 (McLeod et al., 1996, p. 20) and currently stands at 80,000 members (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2013).