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?
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?
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.