On NCTM, Part 1

I’ve read a few blog posts about the National Council of Teachers of Math (NCTM) in the last few weeks:

I encourage you to read those posts either before or after you read this one, in which I join this conversation.

The context, as I understand it: NCTM has been losing millions of dollars,  membership is dramatically down, and recent attempts at turning things around have not worked.

Me and NCTM

I’ve been a member of NCTM for maybe 30 years. During that time, I have been more involved than most:

  • I have been a presenter at 33 national and regional meetings (not counting 37 presentations for regional affiliates)
  • I had an article (“Delving into Functions with Function Diagrams”) published in ON-Math, NCTM’s short-lived online journal. (A version can be found on my Web site.)
  • I have had four articles published in The Mathematics Teacher
  • I edited the “Activities” department in that journal for two years (1995-1997)
  • I have reviewed many articles submitted for publication there, or in the Journal for Research in Math Education, most recently a few weeks ago.

Does that make me more qualified to comment on the organization than any other member? Not really. In fact, it makes me a little less qualified, since I cannot be said to be representative of the average member, let alone the ex-members who have not renewed. Still, I will share my thoughts.

Teachers of Mathematics? Really?

NCTM’s big problem may be foundational: it is not what it claims to be. It is not in fact an organization of teachers of math, but rather of a wide spectrum of people who are more or less involved in the teaching of math: math teachers, yes, but also academics involved in teacher education and educational research, graduate students, coaches and other leaders in school districts, consultants, curriculum developers, app developers, and so on. I don’t know the stats on this, but many, many members are not classroom teachers. Not only that, but the non-teachers seem to dominate many aspects of the organization, for example the authors of journal articles, the Board members, perhaps even the presenters at conferences.

This is not surprising: on the one hand, teachers mostly don’t have a lot of extra time. On the other hand, those teachers who are interested in the big picture, beyond the walls of their school, tend to leave the classroom, and join the related professions I listed above. This is in part because of the lack of time to think big while teaching, but it is also because of the low pay and low status of the teaching profession in the US. (I myself managed to both be a teacher and work in curriculum development and teacher training over the decades, but that is only because I had a relatively privileged part-time position in a private school. I have now retired from the classroom after 42 years, and have fully joined the legions of non-teachers who would like to help teachers.)

Maybe a more accurate name for the organization would be “National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics”.

None of this is intended to pit one group against the other, or to glorify one group at the expense of the other. I am just describing the situation as I see it. It seems like we are faced with a sociological phenomenon that is intractable. How can NCTM truly be an organization of and for math teachers, when those teachers find it difficult to be involved, and when the organization is dominated by non-teachers?

I might suggest some answers later on, but I will start by following Michael Pershan’s lead, and discussing what I get and don’t get from the organization. Who knows, this may be useful to the NCTM leadership as they try to sort things out.

The NCTM Standards

I appreciated the various iterations of the NCTM Standards, as well as the previous emphasis on problem-solving, and the subsequent documents on implementation. However, I only know this from skimming the documents. Actually reading them was always out of the question. This is in part because of the time it would have required, but also because in my opinion, those documents are supremely boring. I have not read them, nor do I know a single teacher who has. I do like NCTM President Matt Larson’s blog posts and conference talks, as he presents aspects of the NCTM philosophy in accessible chunks.

It is probably a good idea for NCTM to generate these documents, as they reflect some sort of professional consensus on pedagogy, equity, technology, etc., and thus may be used to affect government policy, and to support forward-looking teachers and administrators as they discuss those issues locally. I am also excited that in its next document along these lines, the upcoming Catalyzing Change in High School Math, NCTM is finally taking on two previously off-limits topics: tracking and the overabundance of standards in the Common Core. (Though the latter is by implication rather than explicitly. We’ll see how it shakes out in the final version of the document.) I was invited to provide feedback to the authors, and I gladly spent many hours on the project.

Writing for the journal

These are the articles of mine that NCTM published:

Iam sure  they reached a wider audience than they would have otherwise. And the feedback I must have received from reviewers probably improved the articles.  So far, so good.

There are several more articles I’d like to submit, but I’m running into a ridiculous policy.
I recently had an article rejected from the Sound Off! department in spite of the fact it was well-liked by the reviewers, because much of it had appeared in my online critique of the Common Core. NCTM will not publish anything that has previously appeared on a blog or Web site. Apparently, the fact that 100 or 200 people saw my original article, some of whom are NCTM members, and that others might some day come across it means that those members are not getting their dues’ worth if they also see an excerpt of it in the journal. As for the thousands of members who will never read the article on the Web, well that’s too bad for them.

Articles curated and peer-reviewed by NCTM would certainly be more worth reading than articles randomly found on the Web. Moreover, peer-reviewed and edited articles would certainly be better than their original Web version. In fact, that is exactly what happened with my article on interactive whiteboards, which was solicited by the editor after seeing it on my blog. (He temporarily forgot the policy.) The published article was much improved over the original blog post.

This leads me to suggest that a regular department on “Best of the Web” would be a great feature. Perhaps links to worthwhile blog posts and useful sites, plus a curated, peer-reviewed, and edited selection in each issue.

Anyway, I’m told that the policy against publishing submissions that overlap with material previously seen on the Web is currently under review. We’ll see if common sense triumphs. You may be thinking: “Henri, why don’t you refrain from publishing items on your blog or Web site, so you can submit them instead to The Mathematics Teacher?” The reason is that I can self-publish instantly, and reach a (small) community of people who I know appreciate my work. Waiting for NCTM to review my submission does make sense from the point of view of reaching more readers, but there is no guarantee the article will be accepted. I am not likely to deprive the current readers of my work in the hope of perhaps reaching others many months later.

Reading the journal

What do I get as a reader of The Mathematics Teacher? Well, to be honest, not a lot. The issues often pile up. I skim them eventually, and read some of the articles. My favorites are the ones in the sweet spot where the math is new to me, and it is presented skillfully in a way that allows me to engage, without requiring an inordinate amount of time and effort. On average, I find one or so such article per issue. Yet, in decades of reading the journal, only a handful of articles actually affected my classroom practice. That is in part because many of my favorite articles are really “teachers’ mathematics“, i.e. in a content area that is closely related to high school curriculum, but is not directly curricular given the time pressure math teachers are always under when trying to cover essential concepts.

I always read “My Favorite Lesson”, in the back of the journal. Whether or not it is useful to me, it is always both short and interesting, and it is usually very curricular. Perhaps the journal could use more of this sort of teacher-to-teacher sharing.

One thing that really ticks me off when I read The Mathematics Teacher is the seemingly obligatory genuflection at NCTM’s sacred texts, most recently Principles to Action. I was told this is not editorial policy, this is what people submit. Given what we see in the journal, readers and contributors should be forgiven for believing that this, indeed, is editorial policy, and that citing NCTM documents will improve your chances of being published. One thing I’m proud of is that during my tenure as editor of the “Activities” department, I removed all references to the Standards from the articles I edited. I judged submissions not by adherence to dogma, but by their probable usefulness to teachers, and the quality of their mathematical content. Frankly, readers who care about loyalty to NCTM policy can pass their own judgment about whether the article falls within the orthodoxy. We don’t need to be constantly showered with reminders of NCTM’s latest publication.

In fact, this is one of the differences between teachers and non-teachers who want to help teachers. Teachers are typically not bound to any particular framework, because in the reality of the classroom, there is no all-encompassing, always-right-for-every-situation framework. There are more things in the life of the classroom, non-teacher, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Teachers need to be eclectic. I wrote about my own eclecticism last year in a post that is very relevant to this discussion of NCTM, as it addresses the gap between teachers and helpful non-teachers, which I believe may be the key issue for the organization. (This is closely related to how one feels about math education research.)

OK, I’ve gone on too long. I will wrap this up in my next post, with a discussion of meetings, big and small.

— Henri

3 thoughts on “On NCTM, Part 1”

  1. The paywall bothers me the most. Not only will they not publish your article if it was blogged, but then they lock it up, away from most teachers. The start of my disillusionment was locking up the standards, which they wanted everyone to see. I think teachers & researchers would support them in greater numbers if they could access and use the amazing resources NCTM has piled up.


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