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All We Are Saying Is… Give Them a Chance

Shaughnessy_52010by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
NCTM Summing Up, November 2011

Many of you will remember a similar mantra from John Lennon during the antiwar movement in the 1960s. Recent conversations with NCTM members at our fall regional conferences, and several recent critical reviews of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM), have resurrected this mantra for me. When asked, “What is NCTM’s position on these standards for mathematics,” I reply, “Let’s give them a chance.” Here are some reasons why.

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics did not just fall out of the sky; they evolved out of NCTM’s two rounds of mathematics content and process standards that appeared in 1989 (Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics) and were updated in 2000 (Principles and Standards for School Mathematics). I choose to think of CCSSM as the next step in the evolution of mathematics standards in our nation, albeit an imperfect step. In my view, these standards are a next step in three ways.

First, they provide a finer-grained set of content standards than the NCTM Standards previously provided, and second, they are common! Although all of us have some issues with particular “content grains” that are, or are not, currently in CCSSM, none can deny that these standards are being thought of as common. They have already been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, as well as some of our nation’s territories. This is clearly an evolutionary step beyond what NCTM’s Standards were able to do 20 years ago. The political will of so many states to agree on mathematics standards did not exist at the time that NCTM published Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics and Principles and Standards for School Mathematics

Third, and most important from my standpoint, the Standards for Mathematical Practice in CCSSM clearly are based in NCTM’s Process Standards: problem solving, reasoning and proof, connections, communication, and representation. Just consider the language in the statements of the Standards for Mathematical Practice: “Make sense of problems and persevere”; “Reason abstractly and quantitatively”; “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others”; “Look for and make use of structure”; and “Model mathematical phenomena.” These are like musical echoes of the original NCTM Process Standards—our “bible” of teaching and learning school mathematics.

Like any new evolutionary step, the Common Core Standards are going to be criticized in certain circles, just as the NCTM Standards were when they appeared in 1989 and again in 2000. As you read critiques of CCSSM, do so with a discerning eye, and distinguish the thoughtful reviews of the mathematical content and processes in the standards from editorials that have a political ax to grind or that go off on an ill-founded rant. Reviews of both types have appeared in the media in recent weeks.

To those who say, “CCSSM does not provide examples of what they mean in those Standards,” I reply, “NCTM already has done that.” Take a look at all the thoughtful examples elucidating the standards that are embedded in Principles and Standards for School Mathematics and the accompanying NCTM Navigations Series. You can find hundreds of sample problems and tasks that illustrate the mathematical content standards in number, geometry, measurement, algebra, and data and chance, at various grade levels. Let’s think of this round of standards as an evolution. Use what NCTM has already provided, and build on it as you go forth with CCSSM. CCSSM did not have to reinvent all the wheels—excellent wheels already existed and are in motion!

To those that say “CCSSM hasn’t woven the Standards for Mathematical Practice into the content standards,” I say, “That may be true, but in the meantime, Principles and Standards for School Mathematics did interweave the Content and Process Standards, so start with those examples, or take examples from NCTM’s new Focus in High School Mathematics: Reasoning and Sense Making and its supporting books, while we await the forthcoming tasks from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CSSO) sponsored Illustrative Mathematics Project”.

As I have traveled the country this fall, speaking at NCTM’s regional conferences and at local conferences of NCTM Affiliates, I have been struck by several changes among the membership since last year. It is evident in the questions that members have been asking at my presentations. A year ago, the Common Core Standards had been out for only several months, and teachers, schools, and districts, including NCTM members, knew very little about them. Then the questions were, “So, what are these standards? Why are they happening to us? What and how are we going to have to change in order to adopt them? Who is going to make up the assessments and what are they going to look like?”

A year later, we have a lot more information about the standards, the support systems implementing them are growing, the Assessment Consortia have released drafts of their frameworks, and the tone of the questions has shifted. The questions now indicate that many teachers, schools, and districts have assumed ownership of the new standards, and there is widespread interest in and concern about implementing them thoughtfully. There is also a worry about recent criticism that has been based more on opinion and politics than on facts. Questions that I hear now include, “What is this new Math Common Core Coalition all about? (President’s Message – NCTM Launches Two New Public Outreach Efforts). What is NCTM offering now for professional development on CCSSM? (Making it Happen: A Guide to Interpreting and Implementing Common Core State Standards for Mathematics) How are the Assessment Consortia going to be able to test all our kids on computers?” And, most interesting, “Why are some people who know very little about mathematics education attacking these standards?”

During my presentations at this year’s fall conferences, I have answered some of these questions, and provided updates on NCTM’s efforts to support teachers, schools, and districts as we all proceed with the implementation and assessment of CCSSM. (I have made a slide presentation, “Update on NCTM and CCSSM Implementation and Assessment.” In these slides, you will find information from the members of the new Mathematics Common Core Coalition (MC^3). You may be interested to learn, for example, that NCTM is currently updating the electronic appendices that accompany Making it Happen, and is providing summer institutes for elementary and secondary mathematics teachers with connections to the content and practice standards in CCSSM.  The slides also include links to the websites for The Illustrative Mathematics Project (sponsored by the CCSSO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), and to the new Tools to Analyze Curricular Materials for their alignment with CCSSM. These tools were written by members of NCTM and National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and sponsored by CCSSO and the Brookhill Foundation. I also include short updates from each of the two assessment consortia, Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and links to their respective websites, as well as links on information about forthcoming (NCSM), Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics (ASSM), and NCTM webinars related to CCSSM.

As we all pursue the best possible paths for the implementation and assessment of the Common Core Standards for Mathematics, remember this mantra: “All we are saying is… give them a chance!”

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