Fuzzy Reasoning

September 28, 2006

TERC President Comments on Media Reports on NCTM


Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune have argued that the Standards published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have led to poor results for students in the United States, causing them to fall behind in international comparisons.

Where is the evidence to support these claims? If you examine the facts, it is clear there is some fuzzy reasoning going on.

Student scores in the U.S. have not dropped in the period following the publication of the NCTM's Standards.

The argument that the NCTM Standards were responsible for inadequate curricula and for a downward trend in achievement and international competitiveness has no evidentiary base. The math performance of U.S. students in international comparisons has been consistent for more than three decades. The Second International Math Study (SIMS) done in 1982 (seven years before NCTM published standards) fueled calls for math reform in the United States. The Underachieving Curriculum (McKnight, 1987) reports on that study and the need for more challenging and focused math curriculum.

The Standards and subsequent NCTM publications represent a continuing national effort to bring coherence to mathematics education.

The Third International Study of Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) coined the term "mile wide inch deep curriculum" in 1996 to describe a U.S. curriculum that had been in place for decades. Characterized by textbooks with hundreds of pages to be covered in a year, the study found that the curriculum was unfocused, without coherence, and burdened by too many topics.

The 1989 NCTM Standards were an effort to respond to the calls for reform and bring focus and coherence to the U.S. curriculum. NCTM’s Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000) updated and improved this coherence.

Curricula developed to support the NCTM Standards and its focus on increased depth and coherence in mathematics learning have not penetrated very far into the U.S. educational system.

Although the NCTM's Standards have now been in place for over a decade, little has changed in the vast majority of mathematics classrooms. Reform curricula were developed based on these Standards but traditional textbooks still dominate the U.S. classroom. A report on U.S. classrooms in 2000 (Weiss et al., 2001) shows that mathematics classrooms are dominated by the use of traditional textbooks. Further, only about half of K-5 classrooms were using textbooks published in 1997 or later. In addition, by 2002, only about 12% of classrooms used the NSF-funded curricula (NSF, 2002) that were designed to implement these standards.

In districts that have a comprehensive program for implementing reform curricula, student achievement is rising.

Some school districts across the United States have established strong mathematics programs using materials that emphasize teaching for understanding as well as recall; for example Boston, Massachusetts (see Boston schools get an A for improvement, Boston Globe 12/2/2005) and Duval County, Florida (see The Impact of Standards-based Reform in Duval County).

We welcome debates about the merits of particular curricula or educational philosophies and recognize that policy documents need to evolve to meet the ever-changing challenges of providing strong education for all our children. Education that provides all the nation’s children with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in their lives and that develops their ability to think, to inquire, and to participate fully in the life of a democratic society is essential for the future of our country. But in the spirit of inquiry and community that we all value so highly we would hope that the discussions would focus on rational argument and evidence.

George E. Hein