Would National Curriculum Standards with Teeth Benefit U.S. Students and Teachers?

Presented March 23, 2007

This editorial is adapted from remarks made by UCSMP Director Zalman Usiskin on a panel at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA, on March 23, 2007 discussing the topic: "Would U.S. Students and Teachers Benefit from Consensus on National Curriculum Standards for Mathematics?" This article was published in UCSMP Newsletter No. 37: Spring 2007.

The question this panel has been asked to consider is strange. I thought we had consensus national standards in 1989, when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) came out with its Curriculum and Evaluation Standards. The entire mathematical sciences community endorsed them, including the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society. What happened? In 1996, a small group of mathematicians, worried about the fact that the 1989 Standards did not convey their view of mathematics, rallied other mathematicians to rail against them. And so we thought we had consensus but we didn't.

The fact is that if we have any standards with any backbone in them, there will be those who do not agree, and we will not have consensus.

Currently, we have three documents that are viewed as attempts at national standards: NCTM's Curriculum Focal Points (2006) for Grades K-8, ostensibly based on NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (2000) but in reality quite different; the College Board's Standards for Success (2006); and the American Statistical Association's (ASA) Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education, PreK-12 (2005). There is also a draft document floating around from Project Achieve titled Secondary Mathematics Expectations, based on an earlier document, Mathematics Benchmarks for College and Workplace Readiness (2004).

These documents are so different from each other in basic beliefs that no document could possibly be a consensus. There is no mention of technology at all in Curriculum Focal Points; the College Board recommendations embrace technology; the ASA assumes technology in the doing of statistics; and calculator technology is viewed negatively by Project Achieve.

So the question before this panel is not just about national curriculum standards, because we already have them. The question is whether we want one set of national standards with teeth in them, that is, standards that are agreed to by the states with assessments attached, what is called the alignment of curriculum and testing. Because a national curriculum would likely be considered unconstitutional, those who want such a curriculum hide behind the smokescreen of a voluntary set of standards that a state must follow if it wants federal funds. This is not really voluntary, as we have seen from No Child Left Behind.

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that, given recent and past history, anyone could possibly be in favor of national standards with teeth. Allow me to lay out the argument.

As I see it, five basic arguments are given for having one set of national standards with teeth. I believe not only that each of these links between problem and solution is more than subject to question, but in fact is likely to lead to the opposite conclusion.

Argument 1: Our performance internationally is weak. This endangers our national economy. The highest-performing countries in the world have national curricula and national tests. It follows that having national standards would be more likely to increase national performance and help our economy.

Rebuttal: There are two steps to this counterargument, the connection between national curricula and international performance, and the connection between international performance and the economy.

Step 1: Most of the countries of the world have national curricula. It is the case that some of the lowest-performing countries of the world have national curricula. The link between having a national curriculum and the performance of a country is tenuous at best.

The situations in many of our states are very much like those with national curricula. We have had state curricula for decades. No state has tried to have stronger central curricula and textbooks following those curricula than California, and the performance there tells us that there is little connection between strong state authority and student performance. In fact, the data would suggest just the opposite, since despite all of these decades, performance in California remains near the bottom of the nation. At the eighth-grade level, even in the past 15 years as California has flexed its muscle more, its NAEP scores have not kept up with the rest of the states in the Union. More generally, a study by Amrein and Berliner showed that states that have had high-stakes tests have not generally outperformed other states.1

Step 2: We were the lowest-performing country at the 17-year-old level on the first international study of mathematics in 1963-64, and second-lowest at the 13-year-old level. In 1980-81, we were among the lower-performing countries at both ages. Our economy did not suffer as a result, either in the short term or the long term. In fact, our performance in the 2003 TIMMS was better than we have done at any other time. But it seems to make no difference.

Argument 2: Our state standards show great variety in the expectations and in the grade levels of common expectations. This creates large textbooks and unnecessary redundancies and inefficiencies.

Rebuttal: The fact that our state standards show variety is evidence that wise people do not agree on what should be in the curriculum, or when it should be taught. Among other things, the research we have does not support the definitive placement of topics by one grade rather than another. This is a major point I would make: If there were agreement by state and national leaders on what we should teach, then it might be reasonable to codify that agreement in national standards. But there is not agreement, and any set of national standards will disenfranchise those who disagree. In fact, no subject matter is as prescribed in school curricula as mathematics. Yes, states may differ in the grades at which they think fractions should be taught, but they do not differ that fractions should be taught. Contrast this with literature or U.S. history or science. In this context, the differences are minor. Our arithmetic curriculum in the U.S. is remarkably uniform in this era of calculators. In fact, when there is even one change suggested in the arithmetic curriculum, such as teaching a different algorithm for long division, there are people who get up in arms. One mathematician criticized UCSMP Algebra because it used the acronym FOIL in the teaching of the multiplication of binomials. We are already far too anal-retentive.

For example, an algebra teacher any place in the country can expect what arithmetic the students have had. But that teacher cannot make assumptions about what geometry the students have had. In fact, it is in geometry and statistics that we have more inconsistencies and need more guidance than other areas, but the people who are most concerned about student performance are least concerned about these areas.

As for the concerns about "large textbooks" – such texts may actually help teachers to adapt a book to the diverse students in our classes. They help, rather than harm, students.

Argument 3: The opportunities for students in our country are unequal. National standards would ensure that our students would be on the same playing field.

Rebuttal: Some people push the equity argument as the argument for national standards. Experience shows that this argument, too, is faulty. Children come into first grade in our country in some communities two years ahead of children in other communities. The differences are generally not due to schooling but to the richness of the preschool environment. Are we to teach all these children in the same way? Around seventh grade the difference in the willingness of children to do homework becomes a major factor in their performance. Are we going to ignore that?

In Chicago a number of years ago it was decided that all students had to receive credit in algebra in order to graduate high school. This gave the teachers two choices: teach a standard algebra course and fail three-quarters of the class or teach a course at the level of the students – but that would not be algebra. Any national standards that did things by grade level would result in large numbers of failures and would ultimately be established as the More Children Left Behind era.

It is sometimes wrongly stated that many high-performing countries do not track their students. This is an ignorant statement. Singapore starts slowing down students in grade 4. In Singapore, Japan, and China, students are tracked into schools beginning, usually, at grade 7. The algebra course taught in one school in these countries can be as different from the algebra course taught in another as are honors and regular algebra courses in the United States. Furthermore, getting into these schools is one's ticket to getting into the better colleges and universities. These countries track more stringently than we do, and that is why the national tests at the end of grade 6 that determine a student's track are the source of so much study and so much pressure.

Argument 4: We are in a time of change, but change takes a long time to occur, and our schools are often very late in adopting the latest developments. With national standards, we could change the curriculum more quickly than without such standards.

Rebuttal: We are without question in a time of change. In such a time, having a national curriculum is a force against change, because, judging from what we see internationally, national curricula slow down rather than promote change. There is almost no curriculum development in Japan, Singapore, China, Korea, and other countries we have often looked to as high performers. The development comes from countries that do not have strong central curricula. As we look to the high-performing countries, they look to the United States for new ideas. Here in America we have a tradition of local control of education, which among other things fosters innovation and improvement in curriculum and pedagogy. There is also much curriculum development in England, Australia, and in the Netherlands, where there are no strong central curricula.

Those of us in curriculum development in the U.S. always have more difficulty getting a school to try out new materials when the state in which it is located has strong state assessments tied to their curriculum than in states with more lax control. Teachers are naturally very reluctant to do anything that is not in their state curriculum and on the state tests. Personally, I would not have had a 40-year career in mathematics curriculum development had we had a national curriculum, because I could not have had such a career.

Argument 5: Our local and state curricula are often very weak. With the best people forming national standards, we would be better assured of having a good curriculum.

Rebuttal: On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable argument. However, our educational system has become politicized. Both Presidents Reagan and our current president came into office with the agenda of getting rid of the Department of Education. Instead, President Bush dismantled the Eisenhower National Clearinghouses that collected research over many decades, and the Department of Education has filled its mathematics advisory committees with people who are not experts in school mathematics but have been loudly vocal against any modernization of our subject.

By spreading the control of the curriculum over the states and into local districts, we may have disasters in some places, but we avoid a national disaster. We are able to adapt to the extraordinary differences in students that come into these districts, as well as the major differences in state and local economies. We are able to take advantage of the strength and imagination of our nation's teachers, a core of individuals who are getting battered rather than assisted by the federal government's intervention in our schools.

In the opening session of the 2007 NCTM Annual Meeting, author and foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman spoke of the strength of the horizontal nature of communication among individuals today, rather than the vertical, top-down nature of communication in the past. He compared the Encyclopedia Britannica to wikipedia.com to point out the power that individuals now have to help each other in this information age. Everyone knows that one gets the best performance from students when they are actively engaged in their own learning. Similarly, we know we get the best performance from teachers when they have a voice in what they teach. National standards with teeth have a tacit assumption: our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about the curriculum that is best for their schools. That is a recipe for disaster, a recipe for pushing the best people out of our profession, a recipe that in the long run will only result in a devastated teaching force and, as a result, poorer performance from our students.


1 Amrein, A.L. & Berliner, D.C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved February 12, 2005 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/.


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