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Topic: [ncsm-members] Give the Standards Back to Teachers
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Give the Standards Back to Teachers
Posted: Aug 4, 2012 1:43 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Thursday, August 2, 2012, Volume 31, Issue 37. See

Give the Standards Back to Teachers

By John Ewing

A standard is a statement that can be used to judge the quality of a
mathematics curriculum or methods of evaluation. Thus, standards are
statements about what is valued. - From 1989 standards released by
the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

When the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief
State School Officers commissioned a small body of scholars to create
national standards for mathematics in spring 2009, it seemed
astounding that anyone paid attention.
] We have been inundated with standards for more than 20 years. A
Google search for the phrase "mathematics standards" produces about
300,000 results, many referring to the various NCTM standards; to
multiple guides created by individual states, often in conflicting
versions; to publishers and software companies; and so forth. Here
was one more set of standards, and it was likely irrelevant, people
could be forgiven for thinking. But when nearly all the states (at
last count, 45 of them, plus the District of Columbia) agreed to
adopt both the math and English/language arts standards, people paid
attention. This gave those states, if not a common K-12 curriculum, a
common foundation for a national curriculum. It was an unexpected

Or was it? After two decades of standards, we still wring our hands
about student declines, unfocused curricula, and dreadful textbooks.
There is little evidence that previous standards substantially
improved education, and the fact that we continually replace old
standards with new does not suggest success.

Why have previous standards failed? I think the answer is simple and
evident: Standards failed because everybody owns them-politicians,
administrators, teacher-educators (not to mention policy experts,
publishers, and others)-everybody except the people who actually have
to implement them, who have to use them as guides for the real work
of instruction, and who have to determine whether the standards
really are "statements about what is valued." Teachers have never
owned standards.

Politicians take ownership of standards before any other group. They
play on the confusion of language. They use the phrase "high
standards" in speeches and boast about "raising standards in every
classroom." Political reporters, mainly through ignorance, equate
standards with the notion of quality. Politicians have an agenda:
They want to show they are improving education, and touting higher
standards is an inexpensive way to give the illusion of change.

Like politicians, administrators (principals, superintendents, state
schools chiefs) embrace standards, but tie them to accountability.
Rather than a framework of educational values on which teachers can
construct a curriculum, standards become a way to shift
accountability. Teachers need to "measure up" to the new standards.
Standards are used to commodify instruction, to make it more
efficient, to create a checklist by which not only students but
teachers, too, can be judged.

And university faculty members-mathematicians and
teacher-educators-are also fond of standards. With the best of
intentions, they promote standards as a crutch to help teachers who
do not know enough content to navigate the curriculum themselves.
Simply put, standards fix broken teachers. As evidence, since the
release of the common-core math standards, university mathematicians
and educators have been everywhere, creating tools, running
workshops, and looking for ways to aid teachers who are "challenged"
(the most frequent modifier of "teacher" in articles about the

The fact that standards are owned by politicians, administrators, and
university faculty, but not by teachers, guarantees that standards
are viewed as top-down reform. It redefines their purpose, not as a
tool used by teachers to improve education, but as a tool used by
everyone else to improve "the system"-to give the illusion of
progress, to enforce accountability, and to fix broken teachers. So,
is it surprising, then, that standards haven't worked to improve
education itself?
SIDEBAR: "Teachers must shape both the standards and their
assessments as educational tools rather than data-gathering
The ownership of the new standards is currently being established, as
the common-core standards are overtaken by the common-core
assessments. The assessments will be accountability on steroids. They
will produce vast amounts of data generated from a nationwide system,
used to compare students, teachers, schools, districts, states,
ethnic groups ... every imaginable aspect of K-12 education. Before
long, everyone's focus will move from standards to assessments, and
for those who believe in data-driven education, the shift in focus
will be a bonanza. Every governor, every superintendent, every
principal, and every teacher will concentrate on "student
achievement"-that is, performance on the assessments. The
assessments, not the standards, will be the measure of success; the
standards themselves will become unimportant.

This fits perfectly with the goals of politicians, administrators,
and teacher-educators (not to mention education researchers). It does
not fit well with the goal of teachers-to know what ought to be
valued in education.

Unless teachers are the owners, these new standards will fail like
all those before. But to make them owners, we must do more than
invite a few token teachers to the next standards workshop. Teachers
themselves must become the leaders when implementing the standards.
Those who have mastered the ideas and content must mentor their
peers. Those who are challenged must work with their colleagues;
those who are indifferent must become engaged; those who are cynical
must be won over. Teachers must shape both the standards and their
assessments as educational tools rather than data-gathering

Communities of teachers, spanning grades and locales, can study,
discuss, and create materials for standards implementation. A
consortium of mathematics and education organizations, the Ad Hoc
Committee on Teachers as Professionals
[] has fostered
this idea by bringing together outstanding teachers from across the
country to create toolkits for daylong workshops. These will be
workshops run by teachers for teachers, and they give a sense of what
standards can accomplish when teachers have a genuine stake in their
success, that is, when teachers own them.

A change in ownership will not only make successful implementation
more likely, but also demonstrate teaching at its best-as a
thoughtful, forward-looking profession that leads reform rather than
resists it.

Will we succeed in transferring ownership? Most likely not. All those
other groups would have to relinquish their claims, and the people
who view standards as a way to assemble vast new sources of data have
strong motivation to protect their position. Also, turning over
leadership to the teachers requires trust, and politicians,
administrators, and even university faculty have spent decades
convincing themselves (and the public) that teachers can't be
trusted. Teachers themselves have become unused to leading.

But if the core of the standards morphs into assessments alone-if
they are administered from above, seen mainly as a way to compare
things (students, teachers, and schools), and used largely to
identify and weed out "failure"-then the new standards will become
one more reform that arrives with great fanfare and gradually
dissipates with little lasting effect.

If we really want the Common Core State Standards to succeed, give
them back to the people who will use them as a measure of what is
valued in education. Give them back to the teachers.
John Ewing is the president of Math for America, a New York
City-based organization focused on training outstanding secondary
school math teachers. He was the executive director of the American
Mathematical Society from 1995 to 2008.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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