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by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, July/August 2000

Recent attention given to mathematics education provides us with a wonderful opportunity to communicate our vision of school mathematics. The fact of the matter is that many people have yet to hear our messages, or in some cases, they might have heard incomplete or incorrect information in the media. Each of us should take advantage of any occasion to share with parents, school board members, community leaders, and others what Standards-based mathematics education is.

A good starting point is NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, one of our latest initiatives for promoting high-quality mathematics for all the children of Canada and the United States. Principles and Standards describes the characteristics of a high-quality mathematics instructional program and establishes principles that give guidance for making educational decisions that affect all students. With Principles and Standards, NCTM has strengthened the original messages of the Standards by presenting a clearer articulation of that vision. Principles and Standards serves as a blueprint for building curricula that are coherent across the grades, focused on mathematics content and process, and supportive of excellence in teaching and learning mathematics.

Parents, school board members, community leaders, and others must understand that NCTM's vision of school mathematics recognizes that basic computational skills are important but are not enough. Students need to understand the underlying concepts of the mathematics they are taught and have the opportunity to go beyond rote learning in mathematics. NCTM's vision of school mathematics emphasizes the importance of number and operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability; it underscores the importance to students' future success of problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, representation, and making connections. The vision also gives a greater focus on the elementary and middle grades by providing a common set of 10 Standards that address the growth of mathematical skills and knowledge across four grade bands.

Parents and others also must know that our vision for school mathematics isn't just for students. We recognize that we must set higher standards for ourselves--higher standards for teacher certification, professional development, and content knowledge.

Another aspect of sharing the vision of high-quality mathematics for all students is being aware of the facts surrounding Standards-based reform in school mathematics. Although we have a long way to go, we've seen some promising improvements in mathematics education over the decade since the original NCTM Standards document was released in 1989. For one, the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that white, Hispanic, and African American students have demonstrated steady and statistically significant improvement in their mathematics scores since the 1990 NAEP report. In another instance, studies of Standards-based educational reform in Illinois, using data from 1992 to 1995, identified remarkable increases in mathematics achievement that were nearly one standard deviation above the state mean for schools with the highest implementation of reform.

And in another case, Standards-based coursework registered improvement in the racially and economically mixed city of Los Angeles. Reports the Los Angeles Times (17 March 2000), "Since the advent of those [Standards-based reform] courses in Los Angeles, the number of African American students completing three years of high school math with a grade of C or better has risen by more than 40 percent, according to district analysis; the rise is nearly as high for Latino students. The numbers of students eligible for the University of California and the numbers of students taking Advanced Placement courses in math also were up dramatically." Further evidence of students' success in Standards-based mathematics programs can be found in school performance in states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Connecticut, Michigan, and Texas.

Perhaps most promising, in my view, is the growing evidence that Standards-based mathematics is the mathematics of inclusion. When more students take more and better mathematics, they perform better than ever before. When students have access to the constructs of algebra and algebraic reasoning, they are more likely to attend college. When students study upper-level mathematics, they are more successful in college.

We can achieve our goals if everyone involved understands the importance and benefits of Standards-based mathematics programs. So please take the initiative: get a group of teachers to speak to the school board about improving mathematics; talk to your principal; find ways to reach the community through a presence at community events or other places; and be sure to communicate early and often with parents. The vision is sound. Let's work together to spread the word: Standards-based mathematics programs work--for all students.

Note: Please see our Web site, for more information about Principles and Standards and also NCTM's new Academy for Professional Development.

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