The MAA and the New NCTM Standards
by Kenneth A. Ross


In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)
published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics
(the "1989 Standards"). This document had considerable national influence
on textbook development and both preservice and inservice teacher
training, but it also stirred up a good deal of controversy. In 1996 the
MAA and several other professional organizations were each asked to
designate or appoint a committee to help the NCTM reassess the 1989
Standards and aid in revising them. The MAA appointed the President's
Task Force on the NCTM Standards to "serve as a review group that will
provide sustained advice and information concerning K12 mathematics and
the NCTM Standards." From 1997 through early 1999, this Task Force responded to four sets of
questions supplied by the NCTM and also to a draft of the proposed revision
of the 1989 Standards. The final version of the revision was published in
April 2000 as Principles and Standards for School Mathematics
("PSSM").
Members of the PSSM writing groups have indicated that input from the MAA
Task Force was very helpful in their work. Part of the reason may be that
our Task Force was able to make consensus reports despite our sometimes
diverse views. This article is an attempt to indicate to what extent the
concerns of our Task Force are reflected in PSSM. The short answer is that
our concerns were heard and that many of them are reflected in PSSM. In
what follows, we will focus on a few of our main concerns and will comment
on how they have been addressed in the relevant portions of PSSM.
We believe that PSSM outlines an ambitious, challenging and idealized
program whose implementation would be a vast improvement over the current
state of mathematics education. We hope that the mathematical community
will now focus its energy on helping this program achieve its potential,
especially by improving teacher education and by becoming more involved
with producing high quality precollege texts and teachers' supplements.
CONCERN 1: Most members of the Task Force wanted the revision of the
1989 Standards to be more specific with regard to both skills and
expectations for students' intellectual growth from one grade level to the
next. They believed that many classroom teachers share this desire and also
felt that performance expectations by grade would help states formulate
their own standards and would ease the problem of student movement from one
region to another. A few members felt, however, that expecting specific
performance standards by grade is unrealistic since neither the United
States nor Canada has a national curriculum and the variability across
states and provinces is great.
COMMENT: Most Task Force members were disappointed that PSSM does
not specify performance expectations for each grade.
CONCERN 2: Task Force members were concerned that mastery of basic
skills was not sufficiently addressed in the 1989 Standards. None
advocated "mindless drill," but they agreed that drills of important
algorithms, which enable students to master topics while at the same time
learning the mathematical reasoning behind them, can be used to great
advantage by a knowledgeable teacher.
COMMENT: PSSM addresses this concern as follows: "Knowing basic
number combinations  the singledigit addition and multiplication pairs
and their counterparts for subtraction and division  is essential.
Equally essential is computational fluency  having and using efficient
and accurate methods for computing. Fluency might be manifested in using a
combination of mental strategies and jottings on paper or using an
algorithm with paper and pencil, particularly when the numbers are large,
to produce accurate results quickly. Regardless of the particular method
used, students should be able to explain their method, understand that many
methods exist, and see the usefulness of methods that are efficient,
accurate and general." (page 32) "And experience suggests that in classes
focused on the development and discussion of strategies, various 'standard'
algorithms either arise naturally or can be introduced by the teacher as
appropriate. The point is that students must become fluent in arithmetic
computation  they must have efficient and accurate methods that are
supported by an understanding of numbers and operations. 'Standard'
algorithms for arithmetic computation are one means of achieving this
fluency." (page 35)
"Part of being able to compute fluently means making smart choices about
which tools to use and when." (page 36) "Teachers must maintain a
balance, helping students develop both conceptual understanding and
procedural facility (skill)." (page 77)
CONCERN 3: Task Force members expressed the belief that the 1989
Standards did not sufficiently address issues of mathematical reasoning,
the need for precision in mathematical discourse, and the role of proof
throughout the curriculum. The growing appreciation of the important role
of experimentation and conjecture in mathematical thinking may have
obscured the fact that reasoning is the foundation of mathematics. While
science verifies through observation, mathematics verifies through logical,
deductive reasoning. Students need to be consciously aware of the
distinction between exploring topics and providing more rigorous arguments.
In particular, they need to use terminology in a precise manner and be able
to specify their hypotheses, particularly if these are implicit.
COMMENT: In PSSM there is significantly more balance of emphasis
than in the 1989 Standards between pure mathematics, where reasoning and
proof are so important, and exploration and applications. It is notable
that the 1989 Standards avoided the use of the word "proof" whereas this
word is used throughout PSSM.
The general Reasoning and Proof Standard in PSSM does a good job of
addressing the importance of proofs and logical reasoning throughout the
curriculum. Here are some quotes: "By the end of secondary school, students
should be able to understand and produce mathematical proofs  arguments
consisting of logically rigorous deductions of conclusions from hypotheses
 and should appreciate the value of such arguments." "Reasoning and
proof cannot simply be taught in a single unit on logic, for example, or by
'doing proofs' in geometry. . . . Reasoning and proof should be a
consistent part of students' mathematical experience in prekindergarten
through grade 12." (page 56) "Beginning in the elementary grades, children
can learn to disprove conjectures by finding counterexamples." (page
59)
Among the content standards, proofs are given the most attention in the
Geometry Standard which "includes a strong focus on the development
of careful reasoning and proof, using definitions and established facts."
(page 41) "Through the middle grades and into high school, as they study
such topics as similarity and congruence, students should learn to use
deductive reasoning and moreformal proof techniques to solve problems and
to prove conjectures. At all levels, students should learn to formulate
convincing explanations for their conjectures and solutions. Eventually,
they should be able to describe, represent, and investigate relationships
within a geometric system and to express and justify them in logical
chains. They should also be able to understand the role of definitions,
axioms, and theorems and be able to construct their own proofs." (page
42)
Despite the emphasis on rigorous thinking, it should be noted that the
proposed use of reasoning in geometry, while rich, is quite different from
the classical presentation in which the geometry is developed as a logical
sequence of theorems based on axioms. The following summary is from the
Grades 912 Geometry Standard. "Judging, constructing, and
communicating mathematically appropriate arguments, however, remain central
to the study of geometry. Students should see the power of deductive proof
in establishing the validity of general results from given conditions. The
focus should be on producing logical arguments and presenting them
effectively with careful explanation of the reasoning, rather than on the
form of proof used (e.g., paragraph proof or twocolumn proof). A
particular challenge for high school teachers is to integrate technology in
their teaching as a way of encouraging students to explore ideas and
develop conjectures while continuing to help them understand the needs for
proofs or counterexamples of conjectures." (page 310)
Later, in the Reasoning and Proof Standard for Grades 912, it is
pointed out that "students should understand that having many examples
consistent with a conjecture may suggest that the conjecture is true but
does not prove it, whereas one counterexample demonstrates that a
conjecture is false. Students should see the power of deductive proofs in
establishing results. They should be able to produce logical arguments and
present formal proofs that effectively explain their reasoning . . ." (page
345)
Additional specific aspects of proofs and reasoning are addressed in the
Communication Standard. "In order for a mathematical result to be
recognized as correct, the proposed proof must be accepted by the community
of professional mathematicians." (page 61) "For some purposes, it will be
appropriate for students to describe their thinking informally, using
ordinary language and sketches, but they should also learn to communicate
in moreformal mathematical ways, using conventional mathematical
terminology, through the middle grades and into high school. By the end of
the high school years, students should be able to write wellconstructed
mathematical arguments using formal vocabulary." "The process of learning
to write mathematically is similar to that of learning to write in any
genre. Practice, with guidance, is important. So is attention to the
specifics of mathematical argument, including the use and special meanings
of mathematical language and the representations and standards of
explanation and proof. . . . As students mature, their communication
should reflect an increasing array of ways to justify their procedures and
results. In the lower grades, providing empirical evidence or a few
examples may be enough. Later, short deductive chains of reasoning based on
previously accepted facts should become expected. In the middle grades and
high school, explanations should become more mathematically rigorous and
students should increasingly state in their supporting arguments the
mathematical properties they used." (page 62)
The Communication Standard also includes a good section emphasizing
the importance of using the language of mathematics to express mathematical
ideas precisely. "Beginning in the middle grades, students should
understand the role of mathematical definitions and should use them in
mathematical work. Doing so should become pervasive in high school." (page
63)
"Students in grades 35 . . . need to know that posing conjectures and
trying to justify them is an expected part of students' mathematical
activity." (page 191) "This involves creating classroom environments in
which intellectual risks and sense making are expected." (page 197)
Here are the statements pointing out that students need to be consciously
aware of the distinction between exploring mathematical topics and
providing rigorous arguments: In grades 35, "students should learn that
several examples are not sufficient to establish the truth of a conjecture
and that counterexamples can be used to disprove a conjecture." (page 188)
"Using technology, students can generate many examples as a way of forming
and exploring conjectures, but it is important for them to recognize that
generating many examples of a particular phenomenon does not constitute a
proof." (page 41) The issue is touched upon in the Reasoning and Proof
Standard: "Students may not always have the mathematical knowledge and
tools they need to find a justification for a conjecture or a
counterexample to refute it. . . . Teachers can point out that a rigorous
proof requires more knowledge than most high school students have." (page
57)
CONCERN 4: Task Force members were concerned that the 1989
Standards' focus on "mathematics for all" appeared to neglect the needs of
"some." They felt that, while there are good reasons to emphasize that all
students can learn mathematics, the revision of the 1989 Standards should
address the needs, especially at the high school level, both of those
students who will eventually become significant users of mathematics and
also of the majority of students who will not.
COMMENT: At the outset, PSSM claims that "there is no conflict
between equity and excellence." It goes on to say: "PSSM calls for a
common foundation of mathematics to be learned by all students. This
approach, however, does not imply that all students are alike. Students
exhibit different talents, abilities, achievements, needs, and interests in
mathematics. Nevertheless, all students must have access to the
highestquality mathematics instructional programs." (page 5) "Students
with exceptional promise in mathematics and deep interest in advanced
mathematical study need appropriate opportunities to pursue their
interests." (page 369) Unfortunately, there is little followup on these
statements nor any clear indication as to how the different needs of
students should be addressed.
The first principle in PSSM is the Equity Principle: "Excellence in
mathematics education requires equityhigh expectations and strong
support for all students." This is clarified as follows. "Equity does not
mean that every student should receive identical instructions; instead, it
demands that reasonable and appropriate accommodations be made as needed to
promote access and attainment for all students. . . . Likewise, students
with special interests or exceptional talent in mathematics may need
enrichment programs or additional resources to challenge and engage them."
(pages 1213) Again, there is little indication of how these goals should
be accomplished.
The Grades 912 Standards emphasize that "all students are expected to
study mathematics each of the four years that they are enrolled in high
school." "These Standards describe an ambitious foundation of mathematical
ideas and applications intended for all students." (page 287) "A great
deal is demanded of students in the program proposed here, but no more than
is necessary for full quantitative literacy." (page 288) We are not sure
what the last sentence means, but it is hard to believe that it can apply
to all students.
Here is the most complete statement in PSSM concerning the different needs
of students, but it also seems vague. "High school students with
particular interests could study mathematics that extends beyond what is
recommended here in various ways. One approach is to include in the
program material that extends these ideas in depth or sophistication.
Students who encounter these kinds of enriched curricula in heterogeneous
classes will tend to seek different levels of understanding. They will,
over time, learn new ways of thinking from their peers. Other approaches
make use of supplementary courses. For instance, students could enroll in
additional courses concurrent with the program. Or the material proposed
in these Standards could be included in a threeyear program that allows
students to take supplementary courses in the fourth year. In any of these
approaches, the curriculum can be designed so that students can complete
the foundation proposed here and choose from additional courses such as
computer science, technical mathematics, statistics, and calculus.
Whatever the approach taken, all students learn the same core material
while some, if they wish, can study additional mathematics consistent with
their interests and career directions." (page 289)
CONCERN 5: Task Force members agreed that in order to grow
intellectually, students must have significant intellectual demands placed
upon them. The 1989 Standards emphasized the responsibility of our
profession to stimulate and "mathematically empower" students, but they did
not simultaneously emphasize the necessity for students to work hard and
stretch their attention spans. Students need to be aware that mathematics
is not an inborn inherited trait and that everyone finds it difficult at
some stage. They need to realize that in order to succeed they must not
stop even when discouraged or frustrated.
COMMENT: This concern is addressed in PSSM in several places.
"Regardless of the context, worthwhile tasks should be intriguing, with a
level of challenge that invites speculation and hard work." (page 19)
"When challenged with appropriately chosen tasks, students become confident
in their ability to tackle difficult problems, eager to figure things out
on their own, flexible in exploring mathematical ideas and trying
alternative solution paths, and willing to persevere. . . . Students
should view the difficulty of complex mathematical investigations as a
worthwhile challenge rather than as an excuse to give up. Even when a
mathematical task is difficult, it can be engaging and rewarding." (page
21) "Students respond to the challenge of high expectations, and
mathematics should be taught for understanding rather than around
preconceptions about children's limitations." (page 77)
In the Problem Solving Standard, it is emphasized that students
"should have frequent opportunities to formulate, grapple with, and solve
complex problems that require a significant amount of effort and should
then be encouraged to reflect on their thinking." (page 52) It is
unfortunate that the importance of verifying or proving that their
solutions are valid was not mentioned here.
In the Grades 68 Standard, after pointing out students' misconceptions
about the nature of mathematics, it is proposed that "to counteract
negative dispositions, teachers can help students develop a tendency to
contemplate and analyze problems before attempting a solution and then
persevere in finding a solution." (page 259)
There are a few comments about the importance of independent work, as
distinguished from group work, but no indication of the relative emphases
on these two approaches. I was able to find only one statement about
homework: "All middlegrades and high school students should be expected to
spend a substantial amount of time every day working on mathematics outside
of class, in activities ranging from typical homework assignments and
projects to problem solving in the workplace." (page 371)
CONCERN 6: Task Force members were concerned that the 1989 Standards
recommended the inclusion of more topics (including statistics and discrete
mathematics) and types of activities than the traditional curriculum
without giving sufficient guidance about what material should be reduced or
eliminated and how to achieve this. The result was a serious risk of
superficiality, i.e., a curriculum that is a "mile wide and an inch
deep."
COMMENT: PSSM contains five Content Standards: Number,
Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis and Probability. While
the 1989 Standards contained an explicit Discrete Mathematics
Standard for grades 912, PSSM incorporates the main topics of discrete
mathematics into the other Standards spanning the K12 years.
PSSM does not explicitly address the issue of how to deal with the
increased number of topics and activities proposed for inclusion in the
K12 curriculum. Unlike the 1989 Standards, however, it suggests that "in
the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra
and geometry." (page 30) This would ease the pressure on the high school
curriculum but may be difficult to implement.
As PSSM readily admits, the middle school geometry standards will not be
easy to implement. ". . . significantly more geometry is recommended in
these Standards for the middle grades than has been the norm. The
recommendations are ambitious  they call for students to learn many
topics in algebra and geometry and also in other content areas. To guard
against fragmentation of the curriculum, therefore, middlegrades
mathematics curriculum and instruction must also be focused and
integrated." (page 212)
PSSM rarely specifies topics than can be dropped or deemphasized. But in
connection with the customary U.S. and metric systems studied in grades
35, PSSM states that "they do not need to make formal conversions between
the two systems at this level."
CONCERN 7: The Task Force focused on content rather than pedagogy,
so it had little influence on the more pedagogical standards. Task Force
members agreed that the Standards should acknowledge that students learn in
a variety of ways and that good pedagogical models should reflect that
reality. They also wanted it noted that teachers teach in a variety of
effective ways and should be encouraged to develop a good balance of
approaches. They recommended that the revision of the 1989 Standards
should explicitly caution against any doctrinaire adoption of one
particular pedagogy exclusively.
COMMENT: PSSM does not contain the kind of explicit caution
recommended by the Task Force, but the general concern which led to the
recommendation is addressed: "Teachers have different styles and strategies
for helping students learn particular mathematical ideas, and there is no
one 'right way' to teach." (page 18)
When PSSM discusses pedagogy, however, it tends to focus on student
selfdiscovery, probably to encourage traditionallytrained teachers to
experiment with new approaches. But some of its statements may be construed
as minimizing the value of correcting misconceptions before they become
entrenched. "A pattern of building new learning on prior learning and
experience is established early and repeatedly, . . ., throughout the
school years." (page 21) "To maximize the instructional value of
assessment, teachers need to move beyond a superficial 'right or wrong'
analysis of tasks to a focus on how students are thinking about the tasks.
Efforts should be made to identify valuable student insights on which
further progress can be based rather than to concentrate solely on errors
or misconceptions." (page 24) The pedagogical vignettes seem convincing
through grade 5 but are less so later on. Given the large number of topics
proposed for the middle and high school curricula, it would appear
necessary that the percentage of time devoted to groupdiscovery activities
decrease in later grades, but this issue is not addressed.
Here is a sample of statements in the Representation Standard that
try to balance selfdiscovery with learning conventional forms of
mathematics. "Students should understand that written representations of
mathematical ideas are an essential part of learning and doing mathematics.
It is important to encourage students to represent their ideas in ways that
make sense to them, even if their first representations are not
conventional ones. It is also important that they learn conventional forms
of representation to facilitate both their learning of mathematics and
their communication with others about mathematical ideas." (page 67)
"Teachers can gain valuable insights into students' ways of interpreting
and thinking about mathematics by looking at their representations. They
can build bridges from students' personal representations to
moreconventional ones, when appropriate." (page 68)
CONCERN 8: Task Force members expressed considerable concern about
the recruitment and education of future teachers, especially since the 1989
Standards appeared to demand much more of teachers than the traditional
curriculum.
COMMENT: The NCTM has explicitly deferred this important issue to
other documents and groups, but the authors of PSSM do make some relevant
comments. A full page (page 146) of the Grades 35 Standards is devoted to
this issue. This page includes references to "mathematics teacherleaders"
(persons who have particular interest and expertise in mathematics) and to
"mathematics specialists" in the upper elementary grades. The conclusion
is: "Ensuring that the mathematics outlined in this chapter is learned by
all students in grades 35 requires a commitment of effort by teachers to
continue to be mathematical learners. It also implies that districts,
schools, and teacher preparation programs will develop strategies to
identify current and prospective elementary school teachers for specialized
mathematics preparation and assignment."
In connection with grades 68, it is observed that the "capacity of
schools and middlegrades teachers to provide the kind of mathematics
education envisioned needs to be built. Special attention must be given to
the preparation and ongoing professional support of teachers in the middle
grades. . . . Professional development is especially important in the
middle grades because so little attention has been given in most states and
provinces to the special preparation that may be required for mathematics
teachers at these grade levels. . . . . In order to accomplish the
ambitious goals for the middle grades that are presented here, special
teacherpreparation programs must be developed." (page 213)
And in connection with grades 912, we are reminded that "these Standards
are demanding. It will take time, patience, and skill to implement the
vision they represent. The content and pedagogical demands of curricula
aligned with these Standards will require extended and sustained
professional development of teachers and a large degree of administrative
support. Such efforts are essential." (page 289)
The crucial role of teacher education is recognized in the last chapter,
Working Together to Achieve the Vision. "The reality is simple:
unless teachers are able to take part in ongoing, sustained professional
development, they will be handicapped in providing highquality mathematics
education. The current practice of offering occasional workshops and
inservice days does not and will not suffice. Most mathematics teachers
work in relative isolation, with little support for innovation and few
incentives to improve their practice." (page 370) "The typical structures
of teachers' workdays often inhibit community building, but structures can
be changed. In some cultures, shared discussions of students and teaching
are the norm. In Japan and China, the workdays of teachers include time
for meeting together to analyze recent lessons and to plan for upcoming
lessons. . . . Finding ways to establish such communities should be a
primary goal for schools and districts that are serious about improving
mathematics education." (page 371) A good case is made in support of the
following statement: "There is an urgent and growing need for mathematics
teacherleaders  specialists positioned between classroom teachers and
administrators who can assist with the improvement of mathematics
education." (page 375)
CONCERN 9: The task force did not address the issue of technology
per se, but it did express general concerns about how technology may
be used in mathematics education.
COMMENT: In The Technology Principle, the authors of PSSM
express the belief that technology is an important and powerful tool.
"Technology is essential in teaching and learning mathematics; it
influences the mathematics that is taught and enhances students' learning."
(page 24) The following is asserted. "Students' engagement with, and
ownership of, abstract mathematical ideas can be fostered through
technology. Technology enriches the range and quality of investigations by
providing a means of viewing mathematical ideas from multiple perspectives.
Students' learning is assisted by feedback, which technology can supply,
. . ." Nevertheless, there are cautions. "Technology should not be used
as a replacement for basic understandings and intuitions; rather, it can
and should be used to foster those understandings and intuitions. . . .
The effective use of technology in the mathematics classroom depends on the
teacher. Technology is not a panacea. As with any teaching tool, it can
be used well or poorly." (page 25) In the Grades 68 Standards, it is
stated that "students should consider the features of [a] problem and the
likely use of an answer to a calculation in deciding whether an exact
answer or an estimate is needed, and then select an appropriate mode of
calculation from among mental calculation, paperandpencil methods, or
calculator use." (page 220)
Technology is encouraged from the beginning. "The mathematics program in
prekindergarten through grade 2 should take advantage of technology. Guided
work with calculators can enable students to explore number and pattern,
focus on problemsolving processes, and investigate realistic applications.
Through their experiences and with the teacher's guidance, students should
recognize when using a calculator is appropriate and when it is more
efficient to compute mentally." (page 77) "This set of Standards
reinforces the dual goals that mathematics learning is both about making
sense of mathematical ideas and about acquiring skills and insights to
solve problems. The calculator is an important tool in reaching these
goals in grades 35. However, calculators do not replace fluency with
basic number combinations, conceptual understanding, or the ability to
formulate and use efficient and accurate methods for computing. Rather,
the calculator should support these goals by enhancing and stimulating
learning. . . . Students at this age should begin to develop good
decisionmaking habits about when it is useful and appropriate to use other
computational methods, rather than reach for a calculator. Teachers should
create opportunities for these decisions as well as make judgments about
when and how calculators can be used to support learning." (pages
144145)
Kenneth A. Ross is Professor of
Mathematics at the University of Oregon. Among may other important MAA
activities, he is chair of the President's Task Force on the NCTM
Standards.
The various reports and responses from the President's Task Force on the
NCTM Standards are all available
online.
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