Starting the Standards Era: NCTM and the 1980s (Part 6 of 6, Focusing the Council on Standards)

(See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this six-part series.)

The successful release of the 1989 NCTM Standards paved the way for the release of the next two NCTM standards documents, the Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (1991) and the Assessment Standards for School Mathematics (1995). While neither received all the attention of the 1989 Standards, a change in administration in the federal government and changing attitudes at private foundations meant money for later Standards-based projects was more easily obtainable.

In order to provide teachers and district-level mathematics specialists a clearer vision of what Standards-guided lessons would look like, the NCTM launched a project called the Addenda Series, with a committee chaired by Bonnie Litwiller of the University of Northern Iowa1. Although initially intended to produce just a few books a year for one or two years, the project eventually produced 22 books in five years, covering all grade levels K-12. Each book in the Addenda Series provided a set of lesson plans that a teacher could use directly in his or her classroom, offering some of the specificity lacking in the original Standards. The Addenda Series also supported NCTM financially, as it became their most profitable set of publications (S. Frye, personal communication, April 19, 2013).

In order to focus all the NCTM publications on the Standards, a deliberate effort was made by the editors of NCTM's journals to acquire and publish articles that cited the Standards (Lindquist, 2003, p. 837). Authors of research articles that did not refer to the Standards were asked as part of the peer review process to refocus their writing to include the Standards. With this de-facto policy in place, soon nearly every article listed the Standards as a reference. Somewhat ironically, the Standards themselves contain a reference list of only 27 sources (NCTM, 1989, pp. 257-258).


The creation and publication of the NCTM Standards is generally recognized as the event that launched our current era of standards-based reform. Given the rapidity with which educational reforms come and go, such a lasting impact from a document published almost 25 years ago deserves to be well-understood by education policymakers as well as teachers and other education stakeholders. The most significant positive, negative, and fortunate aspects of NCTM's Standards process can be summarized as:


  • Leadership desired an organization-level policy influence.
  • Working groups possessed expertise and represented diverse stakeholders.
  • Goals were set conservatively in an effort to broaden public acceptance.
  • Drafts of the Standards were sent to a very wide audience for review and commentary.
  • Standards were promoted through a massive public relations campaign.


  • Despite seeking consensus, reconciliation with the most vocal critics in the mathematics community has yet to happen.
  • The working groups lacked writing talent.


  • A well-timed "crisis" came in the form of A Nation at Risk.
  • NCTM membership rebounded in the mid-80s before the Standards project had an opportunity to put the organization in greater financial jeopardy.
  • Attitudes about the federal government's role in education, as well as national efforts like the Standards, became more favorable after the end of the Reagan Administration.

It's evident that NCTM's leadership in standards-based educational reform didn't come without a sizeable bit of good fortune. The shifting of any number of events by a year or two might have jeopardized the entire process, or relegated the Standards to be that "book on the shelf" to which few paid much attention.

When compared to the Common Core State Standards, a few significant differences stand out to me. First, the NCTM Standards were created largely for the purposes of comparing and judging curriculum, whereas the CCSSM were created as student learning targets and as part of a larger accountability structure. The NCTM Standards were not grade-level specific like the CCSSM, nor were they ever "adopted" wholesale by states or districts. Instead, the NCTM Standards became a foundation for states and districts to write their own standards, and the CCSSM represents the effort to de-duplicate the efforts of states by having a single, agreed-upon set of standards. Although not without their detractors, standards efforts on this scale do have the potential to drive positive change and anchor collaboration between educators across states and districts. Time will tell if any lasting effects of the CCSSM measure up to those of the NCTM Standards, and how.


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.

  1. Bonnie Litwiller was my academic advisor and twice my methods professor while I was an undergraduate mathematics major at UNI.