Friday, October 3, 2014

NCTM's Grand Challenge

This post was written by Raymond Johnson, a graduate student in mathematics education at the University of Colorado Boulder. His interests include the relationship between education research and teaching practice and he works with teachers to help them evaluate curriculum quality and student growth. You can find Raymond on the web at

A few months ago the NCTM Research Committee asked people to submit ideas for "grand challenges" in mathematics education. I've commented on some of these challenges at (post one, post two), but here I want to talk about what I see as a grand challenge not for math education, but for NCTM itself.

The Old and the New

NCTM has a generation gap problem.
What Dan was noticing at the 2013 NCTM Annual Meeting may not have been just about age, but age is a big part of it. During a session at the 2014 NCTM Annual Meeting, Jon Wray reported that the median age of an NCTM member is 57.5 years. 57.5 years! I personally have a fondness for NCTM veterans and enjoy the history of mathematics education, but a median of 57.5 is big when compared to the current distribution of teacher ages, where we see a median age closer to 40-42 and a modal age of about 30:

Teacher Age
(Source: Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014)

This age difference is noteworthy for NCTM because older generations, like those in the upper half of NCTM's membership, tend to be relatively loyal to their institutions. But that's not the case for younger generations that now comprise the bulk of new teachers. Millennials often fail to find relevance in institutions, or they share in Generation X's tendencies towards institutional mistrust. Claims like these are symptomatic of NCTM's challenge:

It's not that Millennials don't value the power of being organized — they just tend to use the internet and social media to organize rather than rely on help from established organizations. An increasing number of math teachers are using Twitter and other social networks to organize themselves in both less- and more-formal ways. There might be no better example of self-organization than "Twitter Math Camp," an institution-free math conference where attendees tend to be young, connected, and not members of NCTM. (Attendees also tended to be very white and male, even more so than for the profession as a whole. That's a challenge for TMC and our social networks.)

The degree to which NCTM understands the changing needs of its membership is not entirely clear. On the one hand, NCTM does have an organizational social media presence (Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn) as well as blogs and social media accounts for their teacher journals (TCM, MTMS, and MT). Yet, not so long ago, members of NCTM's Research Committee appeared unaware that such tools could be used for connecting with teachers. In a 2012 report, the committee's recommended strategies for reporting research to teachers focused on journal-based publications and conferences. There were zero mentions of the internet, the WWW, blogs, social media, virtual teacher communities, or anything that would have distinguished their recommendations from plans NCTM might have formulated in the 1980s or before. While the committee's recommendations for how research gets reported in their journals and at their conferences might be sound, an assumption that math teachers will be loyal journal-reading, conference-attending members is not. NCTM's grand challenge is not to refine how well it preaches to its choir.

Thankfully, NCTM is not monolithic and some clearly understand the challenge NCTM faces in being relevant to the various needs of young math teachers. Peg Cagle is one of the better-connected members of NCTM's Board of Directors (Jon Wray is another), and if you click through to see the replies to Peg's question, you'll see a lot about what teachers want and what they feel NCTM is currently providing.

Beyond Content 

In 2010 Google's Eric Schmidt famously claimed that every two days we create as much information as we did from the rise of civilization through 2003. While the accuracy of such a statement is difficult to establish, there's no doubt that we are awash with content.

Included in all this content are materials for math teachers, such as curriculum materials, lesson plan sites, instructional videos, test generators, and other teachers' reflections on their practice. What's more, this content is cheaper, more abundant, and more accessible than ever before. When math teachers perceive NCTM mostly as a provider of journals and conferences, NCTM risks becoming just another (and more expensive) content source in a vast sea of content sources. The quality of NCTM's resources certainly helps their cause, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility that people sometimes settle for good enough when they can get something easily at low or no cost. For all its journals and all its conferences, NCTM's game can't be to out-content the rest of the internet.

The internet has spawned many disruptive innovations and NCTM is one of many institutions facing challenges in this content-rich era. Traditional news media is similarly challenged to attract younger subscribers/readers/viewers who are accustomed to using the internet as an abundant source of news coverage, much of which is localized, specialized, and free. We've seen traditional news organizations experiment with variations of familiar revenue strategies, such as targeted advertising and freemium subscription models, but some think it's time for a more fundamental shift in how news media serves the public.

One of my favorite thinkers on the future of news is Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor, blogger, and podcaster. Recently, Jeff has been working to answer the question, "Now that the internet has ruined news, what now?" Jeff has partly given his answer to this question in a five-part series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on Medium as he writes his way towards a new book due out in November. At the core of Jeff's vision is a service-oriented journalism based on relationships, where content is just a means to that end, not the end itself. Journalists would position themselves to work closely with communities, privileging community knowledge instead of acting as the content authority and gatekeeper. Social media would be a key tool for building and maintaining these relationships, as Jeff describes in this selection from Part 2 of his essay:
Now we have more tools at hand that enable communities to communicate directly. So perhaps our first task in expanding journalism’s service should be to offer platforms that enable individuals and communities to seek, reveal, gather, share, organize, analyze, understand, and use their own information — or to use the platforms that already exist to enable that. The internet has proven to be good at helping communities inform themselves, sharing what’s happening via Twitter, what’s known via Wikipedia, and what matters to people through conversational tools — comments, blog posts, and tweets that, never mind their frequent banality and repetition and sometimes incivility, do nevertheless tap the cultural consciousness.
To be clear, Jeff isn't saying journalists should just be replaced by the public sharing of information. Journalists can add value to the community's knowledge by raising new questions, adding context, bringing experts into the conversation, fact-checking, and performing other duties long-associated with quality journalism. What's different, says Jeff, is that "simply distributing information is no longer our monopoly as gatekeepers and no longer a proper use of our scarce resources." Content doesn't go away, but it takes on a supporting role for journalists focused on maintaining personal relationships with their community and its members.

I may be overestimating the similarities between challenges faced by news organizations and by a professional teaching association. But where visions for the future are concerned, I think Jeff Jarvis's service-oriented, relationship-based model for journalism may also be a promising model for NCTM. When I re-read Jeff's essays and mentally substitute "NCTM" for "journalism" or "news," I start to imagine a different kind of NCTM focused on privileging and coordinating the knowledge and relationships of a community of math teachers, one in which journals and conferences are merely seen by members as means, not the ends.

What Now for NCTM

I may be guilty of armchair quarterbacking. I also may be guilty of underestimating how much NCTM members already feel part of a strong professional community built on relationships. During the same panel at which Jon Wray mentioned NCTM's median age was 57.5, he also proudly expressed that he thought of NCTM as a collection of members he could refer to as "we" or "us." That's great for Jon and like-minded members, but that's not where NCTM's grand challenge lies. The challenge is with those who see NCTM as an "it" or a "they," likely young teachers who only associate NCTM with conferences they might not attend and publications they might not read.
I do not profess to be an expert in relationship-building, nor do I believe there to be easy answers. That's part of what makes this a grand challenge. That said, here are a few ideas for moving forward:
  • Don't be faceless. NCTM's blogs and social media accounts are a good start, but to build strong relationships we need to associate with each other as individuals, not as product titles. For example, instead of a @MT_at_NCTM Twitter presence to represent the journal, NCTM needs the editors and authors of Mathematics Teacher to represent themselves online as individuals. The same goes for board members, NCTM staff, and anyone else who identifies with the organization. It's easier to build trust with a person than a brand, and in my two years of helping teachers develop criteria to identify quality resources, I still don't think any indicator of resource quality matters more to a teacher than to have a recommendation from an individual they trust.
  • Find teachers where they are. Perhaps a time existed when it would have made sense for NCTM to build its own social networking site, but that time has passed. We should leverage the networks that already exist and find the teachers there. Some math teachers already use social media for professional reasons and would be easily engaged by NCTM. Other teachers of mathematics, who may only use social media for personal reasons, number in the tens and potentially hundreds of thousands. They may or may not be NCTM members, or regularly interact with other teachers online, but they exist. NCTM needs to organize its membership so that we seek these teachers out, show them that we care, and offer our support.
  • Don't just push, listen. The most common behavior I currently see in NCTM's social media streams is pushing content. To again use @MT_at_NCTM as an example, instead of just pushing out a daily link to an article or calendar problem, show that you're listening to the community. Talk to teachers about what they need and want. Use the journal to respond to these needs and show the community that you're listening. When there's a new article to share, arrange for the authors to engage in discussions and Q&As around what they've written. Again, engage as individuals, and use the @MT_at_NCTM account (and likewise, the other journal social media accounts, blogs, etc.) to highlight and point people to these community interactions.
  • Build a thank you economy and know your members. NCTM should take a few pages from Gary Vaynerchuck's playbook and establish a "thank you economy" with its members. Gary's current business is helping brands with their marketing, focusing more on listening and thanking than with pushing and closing deals. The language Gary uses in his keynotes is NSFW and his message is bold. Here's a 10 minute version and hour-long version of Gary's talks. (Note that these are 3-4 years old but still sound cutting edge. On Gary's clock, that means the next big thing is probably already here.) Gary is a big believer in knowing your customers and using that knowledge to show how much you care. Imagine an NCTM that used social media to know more about you as a teacher — the subjects you were teaching, the textbooks you have, the length of your class period, nuances in your state and local standards, etc., and used that information to help you in ways very specific to your needs. That kind of listening and caring about teachers as individuals builds loyalty.
  • Play matchmaker. At both the AERA and NCTM Annual Meetings this year I heard someone say something like, "We need a for connecting teachers who want to work together" or "We need a website that connects teachers who want to work with researchers." Along with knowing teachers well enough to match them with relevant content and material resources, NCTM should know enough about its membership to connect members with each other.
  • Guide teachers towards mastery. In a 2001 article in Teachers College Record, Sharon Feiman-Nemser discusses what a continuum of teacher education might look like if it began with preservice teachers and continued through the early years of teaching. This continuum would need mentorship and induction programs better than what we have now and, most importantly, someone to coordinate teacher learning across university and school boundaries. For math teachers, NCTM might be the organization that could make this happen. If NCTM knew the strengths and weaknesses of teacher preparation programs, and of individual graduates, and knew more about those individual teachers' needs and experiences, they could position themselves as the facilitator/provider of high-quality, ongoing professional development for teachers. Examples: Maybe I'm a new teacher hired to teach 7th grade, but I student taught with 11th graders — NCTM could build my 1st-year PD around video cases with 7th graders. Maybe my teacher education program was strong in its approach to formative assessment — NCTM could provide support in furthering my practice instead of starting back at the basics. Maybe I switched states for my new teaching position — NCTM could help me better understand how teaching math is different in my new place, and what's worked well for other teachers making a similar move. Yes, this is that big data stuff that scares some people, but I'm not sure the size of the data matters much when it leads to something genuinely helpful.

These are just some ideas. Others will have different perspectives on NCTM's challenges and possible ways to meet them, but I hope this either starts or adds to conversations about math teaching as a profession and we should value in our professional organizations. While I understand why some teachers aren't members of NCTM, I think math teaching is a stronger profession with a strong NCTM. It's a better "we" than a "they." This stronger NCTM lies in a new generation of math teachers, ones who I believe are willing to connect and collaborate as part of an organization committed to forming relationships with them and amongst them, not just providing content to them.


  1. Thanks for the very thoughtful and provocative analysis of what are some of the grand challenges NCTM faces. Some of these issues are being grappled with at the leadership level of the organization and some are ones I feel we have yet to even take up- though I would say, must. Something you did not explicitly mention is the role that NCTM plays in advocacy; an important part of the work of the organization that often gets overlooked or does not resonate with early-career teachers rightly focussed on developing their own wisdom of practice within the classroom. I know part of my own early appreciation for NCTM was its considerable voice in policy arenas where I could not make myself heard. And as someone who entered mathematics teaching in California at the dawn of the Math Wars, I knew that no matter how accomplished I might become at my craft within the classroom, if I did not also work to have an impact at the district, state and national policy levels, I was not fully addressing the needs of my students. NCTM does get the voice of practitioners heard in the Department of Education, in both houses of Congress and in the White House, but I think it does not always connect with members about that component of its work.
    We (meaning the organization, those of us with formal leadership roles, and everyone of us who believes in more & better mathematics for all children) need to do better- and I believe that we can.
    And on a personal note, I appreciate not being called a monolith!

    1. I appreciate your comments, Peg. I grappled with NCTM's role in teacher advocacy and policymaking and I think those things are very important. I left it out, however, because of (1) length and (2) it's not something I was seeing young teachers talk about much. I think I'm done writing on grand challenges for a little while, but the need for policymaking and advocacy sounds more like a grand challenge for young teachers, not for NCTM. If young teachers don't support NCTM to do these things (and by support, I mean be members so NCTM has the funds and the clout), then how will these things get done in the future? It took Shirley Hill and other NCTM folks in the '80s a decade to establish NCTM's policy voice. I'm sure this is another big issue that occupies the minds of current NCTM leadership, but for me, that's a different post for a different day.

  2. Submitted by: Walter Stroup

    Um … agency usually has something to do with the integration of willing and doing.  In sharp contrast with the authorship of the 1989 and 2000 NCTM Standards, the Common Core marks a profound shift away from the professional organizations of teachers and related research communities whose warrant and responsibilities were to center on what happens in classrooms.  Why belong to an organization that has lost both its agency and its warrant relative to mathematics education and that has, further, simply ‘rolled over’ in the face of well-funded efforts to de-skill and de-professionalize the activities of educators?  On the up side, perhaps the profession’s elders might serve to remind us of how thing were, and thereby could be, different.   And if a discourse of ‘renewal' might someday replace the discourse of non-educator driven ‘reform', we might want to ask ourselves how the fetishization of ‘old’ vs. ’young’  in discourse about the use of social media serves, or continues to subvert, this inter-generational possibility … or, if you will, this even “Grand”-er challenge.

    Associate Professor of STEM Education, UT Austin