My NCTM Benefits

I.

I’ve been getting those emails again — “30 Days Left of Your NCTM Benefits.”

If you talk to someone who works with NCTM, one of the first things they’ll tell you is the organization is committed to making big changes. Depending on the person, they’ll also tell you it’s because the organization is scared, staring straight into a crisis. Membership and income is dropping, and nothing they’ve tried has tempered this trend.

I’m committed to NCTM. But if the question is do you personally enjoy the benefits of membership?, my answer is “no.”

I mostly don’t enjoy the conferences, and it’s not easy for me to justify missing school for them. I mostly don’t enjoy the journals — I mean just that I don’t usually want to read them. And seeing as conference discounts and a journal are the major personal benefits that NCTM offers members, there’s just not much for me, personally speaking.

But what if the question isn’t about personal benefits, but of benefits to the field of math education? Volunteers often talk about the role of NCTM in making policy when explaining why they support NCTM: Sure, you can take or leave the personal benefits. But there is no other organization that has a voice for math education on the state or national level. When NCTM talks, people listen. Don’t you want to support that?

A lot of people are passionate on this point. In fact, I was once talking to a former employee of NCTM, and I suggested that I’d rather NCTM didn’t pay lobbyists to try to influence policy. We had been having a fairly radical talk: what if the organization eliminated conferences, changed the journals, restructured the volunteer board, etc. When I mentioned cutting lobbying, though, this person showed real emotion. This was unthinkable, she said. Every professional organization lobbies in Washington, and NCTM is a professional organization.  

Maybe that’s right. All I can say is that I’ve never been asked by NCTM what my policy views are, so I don’t know how they can claim to represent them. A survey would be a nice start, but hardly enough. Maybe there should be debates at the national conference or something, or a right to vote on policy positions if you pay your dues. People sometimes worry that the policy work of NCTM is invisible to membership. I bet a lot more teachers would know about the policy arm if they could influence it.

It’s not hard to come up with a suggestions like these, and it’s not hard to come up with many others like it, that would increase the role of teachers in the organizations. Why haven’t these ideas been taken up yet? Why is NCTM structured the way it is?

II.

NCTM is an organization that wants math teachers to pay for the right to defer to experts. The experts are math education professors, consultants, coaches, administrators, and a few teachers on their way to becoming one of the above.  

Here’s an excellent point that Henri Picciotto made to me: teachers are hardly the only members of NCTM. “The organization is not uniquely or even primarily a teachers’ organization,” he said. This sounds exactly right, and you can see it in everything that NCTM does.

Let’s get concrete. I love writing and reading, and I’ve thought about writing pieces for the NCTM teacher journals. I’ve been turned off, though, sinceI learned that my submission would be judged, in part, by its “consistency with the mathematics teaching practices as described in Principles to Actions.” (link)

In other words, you might not know what great teaching looks like, but NCTM does. If you have any great examples showing how to put NCTM’s vision into practice, by all means, submit an article. But if you’re not ready to sign on to the NCTM vision of teaching, well, best to take your writing elsewhere. And, hey, why shouldn’t you adhere to the NCTM vision? It simply describes elements of good teaching we all agree on. After all, it was written and packaged by the experts.

The “Principles to Actions” clause (and similar requirements across the journals and at conferences) is a shame. First, it narrows the bandwidth of ideas that we’re allowed to talk about in math education. Second, it makes for a duller reading experience; to me the journals have a sort of corporate feel to them. But the most significant thing of all, I think, is that it greatly reduces the creative work that teachers are encouraged to do, and teachers want to do creative work.

“Putting research into practice” can mean a lot of things, but most often it signifies that we all already agree on the best ways to teach. What’s left is to convince colleagues, boards, parents, kids, etc. And when you start with the sorts of vision-documents that NCTM has produced, you end up with very little left for teachers to do.

So across the board — for policy, journals, conferences, PD, publications, resources — NCTM’s pitch to teachers is: don’t you want us be your experts? And the question is, does that pitch still resonate with teachers if membership is dropping?

III.

NCTM seems to get that the internet changed things, but I think they’re wrong about why. It’s not just that there are free alternatives to NCTM publications, or that people now expect digital copies of stuff. The bigger problem for them is the web has allowed teachers to find alternatives to the institutional trust that NCTM currently seeks to trade on. Now, you can choose your experts.

So the current relationship — where teachers are asked to pay NCTM because they trust the experts — is no longer tenable for the organization. This leaves NCTM with really one alternative, which is to focus on what math teachers want, whatever that happens to be.

Is NCTM heading towards this? I don’t know. I do know that, for the first time in its history, NCTM now lists “Building Member Value” as a organizational goal. They are now institutionally committed to the following:

“NCTM fosters communities that engage members to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics.”

Which is great! I think that NCTM will do a better job earning members when it aims to serve the needs of those members, rather than asking us to pay for the right to be influenced. The direction of the organization needs to be reversed; math education professionals will need to trust teachers.

For the journals, this could mean publishing stuff that isn’t already 100%-certified nutritious. And it would mean, I think, that writers would have to start making the case for their vision of teaching without merely citing NCTM consensus documents for authority. But really, NCTM would have a mandate to publish whatever there are readers for in math education.

As far as the conferences go, I’m confused by the role that math plays in these math education conferences. The last NCTM conference I attended was Nashville, two years ago. I remember (and wrote about) being surprised why there wasn’t more learning and doing math for teachers at these conferences. What if it turned out that NCTM members wanted more chances to learn math with other teachers? What if we’ve heard enough about formative assessment?

But all of this is just fleshing out the details. NCTM won’t regain its membership by focusing on PD, making statements, or publishing new guidelines. It needs to stop trying to fix math education, and start serving its teachers.

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20 thoughts on “My NCTM Benefits

  1. Devastating and accurate.

    I am so aware that I am an outsider to K-12 teaching, being at a university, and I hope that this fuels humility. I’m not sure when I went from admiring the advocacy (1999 Standards, Hurrah!) to feeling like it was out of touch, but I imagine it happened the more I was talking to teachers rather than reading research.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Michael, Just a quick note to say that I really enjoyed this post, as always. The idea that “NCTM is an organization that wants math teachers to pay for the right to defer to experts” particularly resonated with me (not about NCTM, about which I know little, but about similar organizations).

    I wonder, however, about the division between “teachers” and “experts”. How might your analysis be different if you thought of teachers, teacher educators, researchers, etc. as belonging to the same profession? Then it no longer is a matter of the so-called experts trusting the teachers, but all members of the profession working together to improve our common project, which includes not only teaching but also curriculum development, teacher preparation, research etc.

    As a researcher, I’m more interested in your criticism than your trust.

    Warm regards,
    adam

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Adam,
      You ask Michael: “How might your analysis be different if you thought of teachers, teacher educators, researchers, etc. as belonging to the same profession?”
      I think that is exactly NCTM’s assumption, and the source of the problem Michael describes. In fact, we are not in the same profession. Of the people you list, only the teachers teach kids. There are lots of people who want to help teachers, without being teachers. I am one of them. Fine, but how can we be useful? That is far from obvious.
      — Henri

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Adam,
      I think, the issue here is that we are not all part of the same profession. Separate and critical elements of a shared mission, perhaps. I agree that all members must work together. It is purely systems thinking. No system can remain healthy if all elements are not doing the work necessary for survival, are not giving and receiving feedback, and are are not nourished. What Michael seems to highlight is that he is not being provided nourishment. I’d argue that may be part of the reason for the declining membership. Or, it could be that their voice is not resonating. Either way, it is a natural phenomenon.

      Like

      1. Hi Henri and Renee,

        It seems to me that the problem that what’s bothering you and Michael (and others) is not so much the assumption that teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers are in the same profession, but rather that some of these groups are presumed to be – or act as if they are – more knowledgeable and expert than the others – even about the others’ domain of work. One solution to that problem is to declare them separate professions: i.e. if you’re not spending the bulk of your time teaching in classrooms then you have nothing useful to say to teachers. Or, by the same token, until you’ve successfully completed a research doctorate then you cannot appreciate research. Lawyers shouldn’t weigh in on medical issues and doctors shouldn’t tell lawyers how to do their job. They’re two separate professions.

        But this does not seem to me a very constructive way of addressing the problem, especially since I think that teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers have something useful to say to one another. Speaking only as a researcher, I’m very interested in teachers and teacher educators criticizing my classroom research. Precisely because they often offer a different perspective from my own. Likewise, I think that teachers can benefit from the different perspective my research can offer them. Not instructions on how to teach better, but a useful perspective on practice, precisely because it’s different.

        Ultimately, how we delineate where one profession begins and another ends is probably not a terribly useful question (sorry for framing it that way). The point of my response was that rather than breaking up with those arrogant, distrusting and unhelpful experts we should try to find ways of engaging in more productive dialogue with one another.

        Does that make any sense?

        Adam

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Hi Adam,
      (First, for some reason I could not reply to your response to my post; so this might show up out of order; second, apologize for typos in first response!)

      Yes, that makes sense. Yes, framing it as “same profession” is also not best way to see this. Taking liberty from a Biblical text; the foot doesn’t try to tell the hand what to do, but they are both parts of the same body. The key here is one part telling the other part “what to do.” You are correct that many teachers mistrust researchers. The literature shows this. We have to find a way to break down those barriers, for all voices to be heard and valued. As both a former teacher and now an emerging researcher, I understand this (also as a parent and a student). I think what Michael is saying is that it is really true that teachers’ perspectives are not solicited or viewed with expertise in the manner in which they should be. This is not just an NCTM issue, not by far. The social capital of classroom teachers is underutilized.

      I do want to make one thing perfectly clear. Being a teacher, a researcher, a policy maker, or any other element in the system, does not automatically confer a level of expertise in that role. None of us knows everything about everything. We can offer our experiences, findings, opinions, and then we have to reason through a course of action based on very context specific variables.

      Like

  3. Hello Michael,

    Your post certainly struck a nerve for me. I suppose that was your intention.
    I have never been an employee or board member for NCTM, but a faithful dues paying member for going on 20 years now. Are the journals always great? Do they always apply to me now that I am out of the classroom and in a leadership position? No, not like they did when I was fresh, learning, and eager. The member authors, who were willing to submit pieces for review, and who were able to make it through that peer reviewed process and get published have changed many lessons for the better. Being a reviewer that might actually read one of your submissions, I will tell you that I have never been asked if the writings align with what you seem to suggest is some kind of dogma (the Principles). If it is good writing, relevant, insightful, and informed, I personally would send it forward. Don’t chicken out, or worse lay blame on others thinking that they will squelch your voice when you haven’t even spoken. I think I can comfortably speak for many of us in the NCTM when we say that we don’t want you to defer to experts, we want you to become the expert.

    Printed publishing is expensive. NCTM can’t publish everything, and honestly, if it hasn’t gone through a full, rigorous peer review, I don’t want it published. Perhaps you should volunteer to be a reviewer, you might find it enlightening.

    I also would encourage you to express your passions by submitting to speak at a conference.

    There is a point that is well taken here, that is that the NCTM needs to figure out how to serve a new generation of teachers better and make membership meaningful in 2017+. Your criticisms are a call for reflection. There need be new ways for NCTM and local affiliates to thrive in the current times, for the benefit of our students, however I must insist that a rigorous review process for published writings and presentations is essential for the Council to maintain it’s reputation. I encourage you to submit something and hope to see you in DC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David,

      I do agree with you that Michael should write. If nothing else, write an editorial. Michael, I have learned, is a critical thinker who can dissect kernels of thought through his lens while still remaining open to the fact that he doesn’t hold the final say (or any say other than his own.) This is the type of dialogue that all societies need. Also, I have noticed, that when Michael writes, it is sometimes (maybe always?) a way for him to grapple with his own thoughts. In fact, that is how most of us can reason through our own thought experiments. The inner words captive in our own heads need to be released into the world in order to make sense of them for use in the world.

      One point in which you are mistaken is that NCTM doesn’t require alignment to their “dogma” (though I don’t see it as dogma). Reviewers are required to ensure a work aligns with the Principles to Actions. So, if you are not doing that as a reviewer, you are not following NCTM’s guidelines. I also agree that in order to publish in any journal (regardless of society), writers need to conform to the requirements the journals set forth. That doesn’t suggest that I agree or disagree with the requirements, but that the journals have the right to expect that. Members of the societies which publish journals also have the right and responsibility to weigh in on what those requirements will be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just as a point of clarity, speaking not as NCTM staff but just as someone who happens to have read the mission statements of the 3 journals, the Mathematics Teaching journal mission does not refer to Principles to Actions. The other 2 journals do, in their mission. So it may be the case (I don’t know) that depending on which journals you have reviewed for, you may have had different experiences re alignment to PtA.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Thanks for this, David!

      Don’t chicken out, or worse lay blame on others thinking that they will squelch your voice when you haven’t even spoken.

      My reluctance to go through the article-writing process isn’t fear or blame. It’s lack of interest. I don’t have any desire to write for a publication that I don’t enjoy reading. If something I was interested in writing anyway could easily be put in NCTM-publishable form, I would gladly submit. But I’m not willing to work hard to meet NCTM’s standards because the publication just doesn’t interest me.

      I think I can comfortably speak for many of us in the NCTM when we say that we don’t want you to defer to experts, we want you to become the expert.

      At some point we should have a discussion about what it means to be an expert concerning a job that is as much performance as it is knowledge. It’s a tough one that I’m still trying to make sense of.

      Like

  4. Hi Michael, appreciate your willingness to speak openly and honestly about issues like this. Sometimes it may seem sacrilegious to question large, credible organizations like NCTM, but I would argue that is exactly what NCTM needs to respond successfully to its challenges.

    One line of thinking that resonates with me is the need to engage teachers more meaningfully in their professional learning. We know that talking “at” students is not effective in the classroom – nor is it effective in traditional conference designs. We know that handing teachers fully developed lesson plans doesn’t work without professional development around effective implementation – NCTM produces a lot of content, but not enough with engaging members collaboratively around that content. We know that all students bring important perspectives into the classroom and those contributions enrich the whole class’s learning experiences – this ought to be NCTM’s model for enriching teachers’ learning experiences too.

    Perhaps NCTM can gain insights from how classroom teachers engage students, and apply those practices with engaging its members.

    Jason Slowbe

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure. This sounds like a call for more productive PD. While NCTM could surely focus on great-PD (it would involve, I suspect, ditching the 3-day workshops altogether to focus on ongoing, on-site learning) it’s unclear to me that teachers will be more excited for discounts to effective PD than they are for ineffective PD. My take is that teachers just aren’t as excited for that benefit as NCTM supposes that they should be. I don’t have the data, though, and I could be wrong.

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  5. No skin in the game here; I’m only a member of NCTM when the conference is nearby.

    I agree; trusting teachers should be a focus of NCTM and reflecting the values teachers show. However, if NCTM only builds what teachers want to see, very little research will be shared. (Never cared much about research when I was a classroom teacher, and I still struggle to.)

    Take TeachersPayTeachers as an example; the most popular items are the ones that are pedagogically vague or shallow, wrapped in adorable worksheet form. Not many professional educators will return to a conference that emphasizes shallow, adorable things with no research.

    As with most things, a balance in the middle is ideal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. However, if NCTM only builds what teachers want to see, very little research will be shared.

      Maybe, or maybe not. For example, I know that there are groups of teachers who are very interested in research. True, many of them are interested in research that goes beyond the research perspective that NCTM promotes (e.g. cognitive psychology has no home at NCTM, neither does research that disagrees with the NCTM vision) but if we’re imagining an NCTM that focuses more about the teaching profession than fixing math education, let’s imagine they could find a home in NCTM. Would it be hard to imagine a small, cheap gathering organized by NCTM for the sake of these teachers? What if NCTM was in the business of finding shared interests among math teachers and helping them do things together? I think research-lovers (myself included) could find a place in that world.

      As it is, this research-lover finds very few ways to express that love with NCTM.

      Like

  6. Warning…a mini blog follows…

    I’ve been thinking over my response to this for a few days. I ended up replying to previous responses because some of the issues I had intended to discuss we brought up in their posts. I agree with much of what you say, Michael, with a few exceptions. I want to touch on those, and then add on, or tag on, to your points that particularly resonate with me. Here goes.

    1. “But if the question is do you personally enjoy the benefits of membership?, my answer is ‘no.’”
    This is a question NCTM needs to ask each member. There are any number of reasons why someone would not renew, or join, NCTM. It is important that you were explicit as to why you do not. The board needs to hear this. It needs to hear from all those who do, or do not, enjoy the benefits, and why. In an organization as big as NCTM there will be any range of opinions, and it is a difficult task to figure out how to meet the needs of such a diverse range of needs.

    2. In a reply above, I mentioned that I think you should write and you should present at NCTM. Your voice is needed, and wanted, by many of the members. So, put yourself out there. If you want to see change, if you understand what you need, be part of making sure that happens. Or not. Everyone has to make decisions of priority. If you are finding ways of engaging with a math community, of presenting, of writing, that falls outside the former structure of NCTM, then certainly you do not have to be a member. But, as to your comment “What if it turned out that NCTM members wanted more chances to learn math with other teachers? What if we’ve heard enough about formative assessment?” – the same idea of addressing the needs of a diverse audience applies. Attendees will have any number of interests and needs. Where you may know enough about formative assessment, as per your example, there will many who do not and who likely need to. Pick any topic and it will likely be the same. Still, you were addressing whether or not you, personally, benefit. So, your response is appropriate and valid, and needs to be heard. Other members need to respond as well. The board needs to hear from all its members.

    3. From a previous post of yours:
    • If there is a systemic critique I would make of NCTM, it’s that its entire leadership structure reflects a PD orientation that goes from researchers to PD providers to coaches and then to teachers, as recipients. By this I mean that board service is nearly impossible to pull off while being a classroom teacher, and that the model of the conferences seems to be of maximizing traditional PD delivery (even when it’s delivered by teachers). One thing that we’re seeing from the internet and the MTBoS is that this is just one model of how teachers like to develop professionally. Creating more opportunities at conferences for teachers to interact in ways that classroom teachers might find more natural — like teaching mathematics and talking and writing about practice — would benefit the status of teachers.

    I believe this is what is difficult for the board to address. In the past, conferences were one of the main ways for individuals to participate in professional development. That is not the case now. The “traditional” form of PD, and of teaching, being the “sit and get” lecture, does not align with what we know about the ways humans learn. And, yet, “we” still continue with this! It happens at the university level, the corporate level, and is not content or context specific. That doesn’t mean there is never the time or place for “lecture” – as you say, it is one model. MTBoS, blogs, Twitter, EdCamps, etc are merely manifestations of ways we humans have met our needs for different models. The key, I think, lies in these two words: “interact” and “natural.” This is something NCTM must consider. (And all professional societies, in fact.) It is, at one level, a most basic form of democracy.

    4. Should NCTM be a democracy? You mentioned these ideas in this post, or other posts:
    “I bet a lot more teachers would know about the policy arm if they could influence it.” I agree. Whether or not I agree with the idea and practice of lobbying (actually, I detest the system we have that “requires” this because it limits the voices policy makers hear and sets itself up for corruption. That goes for all areas of government.), the fact is that NCTM is a strong voice locally, and at the state, federal and world-wide level. We can argue about what has been pushed as an agenda (for example, why has spatial reasoning not been given the level of importance that it needs), but it is a fact that NCTM has enormous power to impact policy. We can also argue whether or not teachers’ views have been equally represented in the making of those policies. I’d argue no, not across any area of education. So, yes, one way to engage members is to actively solicit, and listen, to all opinions. I believe NCTM is trying to do this now by asking for feedback on the draft positions regarding mathematics in high school (see NCTM website). But there is ample room for change.

    5. Last. I believe the point that most resonated with me is this:

    “Here’s an excellent point that Henri Picciotto made to me: teachers are hardly the only members of NCTM. “The organization is not uniquely or even primarily a teachers’ organization,” he said.” This sounds exactly right, and you can see it in everything that NCTM does.”

    If one reads that, as you point out, the biggest issue is that the “organization is not uniquely or even primarily a teacher’s organization.” Yes, yes it is…or it is supposed to be. It’s in the title of the organization, for crying out loud: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. There are sister organizations (researchers of mathematics, supervisors…). But, from where I stand, and this is absolutely NOT limited to this one professional society, teachers’ (PK-12) expertise and voices are very much unrepresented in policy, curricula, and professional development. It is a top-down model of business that creates a false level of “expertise” hierarchy. Do organizations need levels of responsibility? Sure, otherwise there is utter chaos. A healthy organization, in my opinion, can have those levels of responsibility and input without an authoritarian design. I’m not suggesting it is easy, but we can either continue with the (failing) status quo or we can embrace reality, acknowledge what needs to be changed, and bravely try to go about doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lots of great stuff in this blog-length comment! (If long comments are welcome anywhere on the internet, they ought to be welcome here.)

      Here is my favorite bit from your comment: If one reads that, as you point out, the biggest issue is that the “organization is not uniquely or even primarily a teacher’s organization.” Yes, yes it is…or it is supposed to be. It’s in the title of the organization, for crying out loud: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics…It is a top-down model of business that creates a false level of “expertise” hierarchy.

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  7. So across the board — for policy, journals, conferences, PD, publications, resources — NCTM’s pitch to teachers is: don’t you want us be your experts? And the question is, does that pitch still resonate with teachers if membership is dropping?

    Not to be, you know, that guy, but aren’t we firmly in ad hominem territory here? If the ideas promoted by NCTM aren’t useful for teachers, that case should be made. If the ideas are useful, reliably resulting in engaged, productive classrooms, then why should we care who distributes them?

    I’m also not willing to interpret declining membership as a complete rejection of NCTM’s program. (Argument ad populum??) I’d like to be able to separate a bunch of overlapping factors also, like macroeconomic conditions, internet-based resources and PD, generally lousy working conditions for teachers, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll speak personally: I don’t want ideas. I don’t need NCTM to give me ideas. I have books, I have the internet, I have colleagues. What I do want is to do certain things: to write, to read, to talk, to share, to math, to think, to decide, to vote, etc. There are various professional opportunities I’d like to have, but don’t, or don’t have often enough. NCTM offers me ideas, but I’m not more interested in NCTM’s ideas than I am anyone else’s.

      While you’d have to tweak that last paragraph for various other teachers, my claim in this piece is that NCTM is in the business of offering ideas (on their authority) but increasingly teachers aren’t particularly interested in their ideas. But improving the ideas is the wrong move; the problem is fundamental to being an ideas-offering organization at a time when teachers can get ideas (with authority) from many places.

      The pitch for NCTM, on the other hand, could be fundamentally different. Not “we have a vision for math education” but “we have a vision for what it means to be a math teacher.” That vision could be about helping teachers do many of the things that teachers have shown that they like to do — have political influence, collectively advocate, teach math to colleagues, do math with colleagues, etc., etc., your list may vary.

      And you’re right: there are probably a lot more factors involved in NCTM’s decline than a rejection of the model. But I didn’t get into that because I don’t know what to do with that framing — we can’t change macroeconomic factors, but we can change the NCTM model. (We can, right??) Of course on a descriptive level you’re surely right, and I’d love to read some serious analysis of the phenomenon of declining membership.

      Like

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