Positioning NCTM for a Second Century
By Matt Larson, NCTM President
July 19, 2017
April 2020 will be a significant year in the history of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In Chicago, from April 1–4, NCTM will celebrate its centennial as a council of teachers of mathematics at the NCTM Centennial Annual Meeting: Looking Back
and Moving Forward.
This is a remarkable accomplishment. Very few organizations or businesses last 100 years. Think of the major businesses that have vanished in the lifetime of NCTM: Standard Oil, Woolworth's, Borders, Bethlehem Steel, General Foods, Blockbuster, Polaroid, and Pan Am are just a few of the many that
no longer exist.
NCTM's long history is a credit to the strength of NCTM's members, the thousands of volunteers who have given their time and expertise to serve the Council, the many dedicated staff members, and the many dedicated and visionary Board members and leaders who assumed responsibility over the last
century to position the Council as an influential and respected force within mathematics education.
The current NCTM Board is no exception. At its July meeting, the Board engaged in strategic re-visioning of NCTM, asking one critical question: If we were designing NCTM from the ground up today to serve mathematics teachers in the twenty-first century, what would it look like? The Board tried
to rise to the level of the visionary leaders who founded NCTM in the spring of 1920 at the National Education Association (NEA) meeting in Cleveland.
In the very first volume of The Mathematics Teacher published by NCTM in January 1921, C. M. Austin, the first president of NCTM, from Oak Park, Illinois, wrote that
We [NCTM] also recognize the fact that unless we give value received for the membership fee no one will become a member a second time. We, therefore, intend to make good. . . . We also recognize the great inspiration and responsibility that a large membership will
give us. Thus, the individual teachers have a duty as well as the officials of the Council. If the movement should fail the individual teacher who has not become a member and contributed his bit toward success will be as much to blame for failure as any one else. (p. 2)
Although we are far from the new and fledgling organization NCTM was in 1921, Austin's words are as relevant today as they were then. NCTM is at a crossroads. NCTM must change to thrive in a second century.
Here are some startling facts that made the Board's work so important: NCTM arguably reached its zenith in terms of membership and influence around the time of the release of Principles
and Standards for School Mathematics in 2000. Around the time of the publication of Principles and Standards, NCTM membership was approximately 112,000. Today membership is around 60,000. At the Annual Meeting in Boston in 1995, conference
attendance was over 20,000. This past April in San Antonio, attendance was just over 7,000. Many factors account for these declines, and NCTM is not alone as a professional membership organization in facing these challenges.
Although membership and conference attendance have dramatically declined over the last two decades, the programs and services that NCTM provides have not significantly changed. NCTM still presents the same number of conferences and publishes the same number of journals (actually one
more) and book titles as the Council did in 2000 (and largely in the same way).
This leads to another startling fact: Expenses have remained relatively stable or gradually increased, but revenue has declined. For the past 10 years, NCTM has had an annual average operating loss of approximately $1.5 million. Earnings from an invested reserve fund allowed the Council to
engage in the practice of deficit spending. Changing market conditions no longer permit this practice to continue into the long-term future. Continuing this practice is unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible, and failure to act on this reality would be accepting the Council's ultimate demise.
I want to thank the current Board of Directors for seriously tackling these issues. This is not easy work. Beginning in February 2016, the Board set the goal to close the budget gap over a period of 3–4 years. A number of steps have been taken over the past year: reducing NCTM committee
travel and leveraging virtual meetings; reducing NCTM staff, including a reduction of Associate Executive Directors from five to two; merging or eliminating various standing committees; and other cost savings and efficiencies at headquarters.
However, it is clear that these steps are not enough to ensure the long-term success of the Council for a second century. Therefore, the Board of Directors and select staff engaged in the challenging re-visioning work in July. To position NCTM for a second century of service to teachers of
mathematics, the Board determined that NCTM's work moving forward will be guided by a more concise mission statement and a focused strategic framework:
The National Council of Teachers
of Mathematics supports and advocates for the highest-quality mathematics teaching and learning for each and every student.
Teaching and Learning: NCTM provides support for research-informed teaching that ensures the learning of each and every student in equitable environments.
Access, Equity, and Empowerment: NCTM advances a culture of equity where each and every person has access to high quality teaching and is empowered as a learner and doer of mathematics.
Building Member Value: NCTM fosters communities that engage members to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics.
Advocacy: NCTM engages in advocacy to focus, raise awareness, and influence decision makers and the public on issues concerning teachers of mathematics and high-quality mathematics teaching and learning.
In addition, the Board took a number of actions to increase the value of membership, including the adoption of a tiered membership model, for launch in January 2018, which will reduce membership costs (particularly for new members) while simultaneously increasing member value.
The Board also approved a proposal to transform NCTM's three practitioner journals over the next two years to provide members more frequent and relevant content with an expanded digital presence.
The Board of Directors has taken the first steps necessary to help ensure NCTM's relevance, member value, and financial viability. Much work remains.
To paraphrase Austin, whether or not NCTM survives is our collective responsibility. I call on every member to make your voice heard, to take advantage of NCTM's unparalleled community events and peer-reviewed resources, and to urge your nonmember colleagues to become members of our
professional community to support our critical advocacy work. Collectively, we can ensure a stronger and more vibrant NCTM for a second century.
Matt, your transparency and leadership is exactly what NCTM needs right now, credit to you and the Board for owning and meeting these challenges.
I would advise pivoting away from producing even-more content, and toward connecting members for collaborative learning experiences around that (reduced) content. I suspect most classroom teachers don't need even more journal articles each month to improve their practices, and we certainly don't need to buy an NCTM membership to find quality content through online communities, for example. But I suspect classroom teachers and prospective members would welcome more on-demand, just-in-time support and community collaboration around 1-2 very impactful lesson ideas or instructional strategies each semester.
I think there is also an equity component to NCTM's membership challenges. If NCTM is to act meaningfully on its focus on Equity, then it must deliberately grow its membership to reach all student and educator populations. The Board should actively pursue whatever steps are necessary to have at least one NCTM member in every K-12 school, who can then be a conduit of NCTM's materials and messaging to the other teachers in their schools. Classroom teachers know that each and every student has valuable contributions to make, and NCTM should take similar steps as classroom teachers to amplify the voices of each of its members, wherever they may teach, to benefit the entire NCTM community.
NCTM is its members. I suspect the organization can learn a lot about its membership challenges from how classroom teachers meet similar engagment challenges with our students.
Thanks, Matt and Board of Directors members, for tackling these hard issues head on. Now more than ever, mathematics teachers throughout the country need a strong and vibrant NCTM. The mission and strategic framework you inveiled here sound right on target.
Thank you, Matt, for sharing the current challenges that are being addressed by the Board members and staff. The cyclic changes in membership and finances are not new to NCTM, but require possibly new responses in this technological age to solving the issues. Your message reveals that you and the directors are actively searching for strategies to maintain the values and services that support teachers. Thank you for your dedicated work!