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NCTM and Democratic Principles

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by Johnny W. Lott, NCTM President 2002-2004
NCTM News Bulletin, January/February 2003

"Back when the NCTM was in the math teaching business, rather than the political correctness business, they put out some very useful 'yearbooks' dealing with enrichment topics."

This statement was taken from an e-mail posted to a public listserv. The message suggests that in an earlier era NCTM did something different from what it now does. There are two implications in that statement: (1) NCTM once published "some very useful 'yearbooks'," and (2) NCTM now is in the "political correctness business"—that is, standing by fundamental issues of access and opportunity. The two activities may not be unrelated, and the latter reflects a strategic plan that the Board of Directors is now considering.

  • NCTM once published some very useful yearbooks.
    Not only did NCTM once publish some very useful yearbooks, but it still does. Consider the most recent titles in the yearbook series:
    • 2002: Fractions and Rational Number
    • 2001: The Roles of Representation in School Mathematic
    • 2000: Learning Mathematics for a New Centur
    • 1999: Developing Mathematical Reasoning in Grades K–1
    • 1998: The Teaching and Learning of Algorithms in School Mathematics
    • 1997: Multicultural and Gender Equity in the Mathematics Classroom: The Gift of Diversity

I could go on with titles, but only the last one might be incorrectly construed as a "politically correct" publication as opposed to a "useful" book about mathematics. In each of the yearbooks, including the latter, NCTM has taken the stand that (1) all students can learn mathematics; (2) all students are valued in the process; and (3) not all students learn in the same way, so a teacher should know different ways to teach mathematics. These stands are simply restatements of basic principles stated in Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. If these stands represent "political correctness," then the Council should never waver.

  • NCTM is now in the political correctness business.
    If this statement refers to one of the three stands above, then it is true. Teachers should, and the Council does, staunchly advocate that all students—regardless of their personal characteristics, backgrounds, or physical challenges—must have opportunities to study mathematics and the support to learn it.

However, the statement also seems to suggest that NCTM should not be involved in the politics of today's world, and that is worthy of further discussion.

In the past, the Council has sometimes been criticized by its allies and even its members for being too timid in taking decisive action and making strong statements on issues that affect mathematics education in the United States and Canada. Let us consider the political environment today and contemplate actions that NCTM can and possibly should take.

NCTM has been a staunch defender of providing mathematics of the highest caliber for all students. Critics have charged that this stance is not realistic. They are wrong. There can be no denying and no apologizing for this position. Anything less is unacceptable for the sake of pre-K–12 students. To take a different stance is unconscionable and counter to the fundamental nature of our democratic society.

Since 1989, NCTM has been an advocate for a revised mathematics curriculum. This position is not unlike the move by peer organizations to advocate for a "lean and lively" calculus at the postsecondary level. Advocacy for change is a sign of a healthy organization. NCTM is willing to take a close look at the curricular situation as it exists and has the courage to say that things could be better. Critics cannot truthfully deny that mathematics has improved since the release of the first NCTM Standards document as evidenced by higher test scores and fewer remedial classes at the postsecondary level.

NCTM in the Future

NCTM is currently developing an assessment education program to be put in place this year. Our members, administrators, and school boards need this program to provide relief for their overtested classrooms. The Council also has a government-relations consultant to inform us of developments in education-related policy legislation in Washington.

The Board is also considering what it might allow for NCTM to play a stronger public advocacy or political action role in the future. Several factors motivate these considerations: (a) members have asked for help; (b) positions of the Council are frequently misquoted and inaccurately characterized by critics; (c) the progress initiated by the Council is threatened.

In its long history, the Council has rarely, if ever, been as politically engaged as the Board is now considering positioning it to become. This would represent a change in the policy of the Council. What are your views? E-mail me at jlott@nctm.org to let me know.

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