Mathematics Curricula Based on Rigorous National Standards: What, Why, and How?
Phi Delta Kappan, February 1999, pp.454-456.
By Barbara Reys, Eric Robinson, Sheila Sconiers, and June Mark
Teachers, administrators, and parents need to become informed about the unique characteristics of the mathematics curricula based on the NCTM Standards and about the support structures that are being established to make it easier for schools to adopt them.  For sources of such information, read on.

    OVER THE past two years, the release of data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has focused national attention on the need for a thoughtful and informed reshaping of both what and how mathematics is taught at all levels of American schooling.(1)  While most of the national press has focused on the relative standings of nations, one of the often-overlooked purposes of TIMSS was to gather information about the education systems and curricula of the participating nations.  At grade 8, for example, the content of curriculum materials in the U.S. is a full year behind that of many higher-achieving countries.

    Both constructive proposals for change in the typical U.S. mathematics curriculum and a litany of attacks on current reform efforts have proliferated, aided by the unprecedented access to the Internet, by discussions in professional journals, and by extensive coverage in other media.  These discussions have been characterized by a variety of charges and countercharges.(2)  In his January 9, 1998 "State of Mathematics Education" speech to the joint meetings of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called for a cease-fire in the current "math wars." He asked that mathematics professors, teachers, and other professional educators "make the importance of mathematics for our nation clear, so that all teachers teach better mathematics and teach mathematics better."(3)

    Data for TIMSS were gathered in the early 1990s, well before the Standards documents of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) had all been published and long before the recommendations had been implemented to any great extent.(4)  The NCTM Standards documents provide specifications for curriculum and instruction that call for significant change from current practice - both in content and in pedagogy.  These recommendations emphasize that all students should learn important mathematics, and they set forth standards by which local school districts can judge their own curricula.  They call for curriculum and instruction that engage and challenge students and prepare them for continued study and growth in mathematical skill and understanding.  They call for the development of mathematical habits of mind and of understanding and appreciation of the important role of mathematics in scientific applications and in daily life.  The intent of the Standards is to help students become mathematically literate, which includes being able to explore, to conjecture, to reason logically, and to use a variety of mathematical methods to solve problems.

    In the early 1990s the National Science Foundation funded the development of several comprehensive curriculum programs at each level of schooling that are based on rigorous mathematical standards.  These new comprehensive, multigrade mathematics curricula are now available for school use. Although each curriculum is different, all represent specific interpretations of the vision outlined in the NCTM Standards.  These curriculum materials:

    Mathematics curricula based on the NCTM Standards are not in themselves panaceas, but they hold great potential for creating positive change and for helping teachers and administrators provide a richer, more challenging experience to students.  Early studies on the impact of these curricula have consistently demonstrated that students using these curricula perform as well as control groups on traditional measures of mathematics achievement and significantly outperform students on measures of problem solving and reasoning.(5)  [A progress report on one of them, the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, appears in the article "Issues and Options in the Math Wars" in this same February issue of Kappan.]

    All the schools, indeed all the teachers, implementing these curricula have their own stories to tell about students' growth in learning and about the challenges associated with making major changes.(6)  These stories are beginning to emerge across the country as more teachers implement these new curricula in their schools.  The challenge now is to inform teachers, administrators, and parents of these Standards-based options, so that every district can make an informed decision about the mathematics curricula that best suit its needs.

    What can you do?  Parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members should learn about the new mathematics curricula and then explore their implications for what mathematics our students learn as well as when and how they learn it.

    The National Science Foundation provided major funding to establish projects for the development, piloting, and refinement of these Standards-based mathematics programs.  These projects brought together the mathematics specialists (mathematics educators, mathematicians, and classroom teachers) who wrote and revised materials, the classroom teachers who tested the materials with their students for several years and provided feedback to the writers, and the commercial publishers who produced and are now distributing the completed curricula.

    Teachers, administrators, and parents need to become informed about the unique characteristics of these curricula and about the support structures that are being established to make it easier for schools to adopt them.  The four national centers listed below work closely with the curriculum development projects to provide information and support for investigating and implementing Standards-based mathematics programs.  Specifically, the centers will:

    In addition, the centers will stimulate further research designed to monitor the impact of the curricula on student learning, encourage conversations with teacher preparation institutions about strategies for informing new teachers about Standards-based curricula and instruction, and help individual school districts to organize, plan, and launch system-wide mathematics education reform based on the NCTM standards.(7)
ARC Center
Sheila Sconiers, Director
57 Bedford St., Suite 210
Lexington, MA 02420
Phone: 800/772-6627, ext. 50

Middle School
Show-Me Center
Barbara Reys, Director
104 Stewart Hall
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211
Phone: 573/884-2099

Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students (COMPASS)
Eric Robinson, Director
306 Williams Hall
Ithaca College
Ithaca, NY 14850
Phone: 800/688-1829

Mathematics Curriculum Center
June Mark and Debora Spencer, Directors
Education Development Center
55 Chapel St.
Newton, MA 02458-1060
Phone: 800/332-2429


1. James W. Stigler and James Leebert, "Understanding and Improving Classroom Mathematics Instruction: An Overview of the TIMSS Video Study," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1997, pp. 14-21.
2. Hung-Hsi Wu, "The Mathematics Education Reform: Why You Should Be Concerned and What You Can Do," American Mathematical Monthly, December 1997, pp.946-54; and Jeremy Kilpatrick, "Confronting Reform," American Mathematical Monthly, December 1997, pp. 955-62.

3. For a complete transcript of Riley's speech, see

4. Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989); Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1991); and Assessment Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1995).

5. William M. Carroll, "Results of Third-Grade Students in a Reform Curriculum on the Illinois State Mathematics Test," Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, vol. 28, 1997, pp. 237-42; Mark N. Hoover, Judy S. Zawojewski, and James Ridgway, "Effects of the Connected Mathematics Project on Student Attainment," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, 1997; Richard T. Lappan, David E. Bames, Barbara J. Reys, and Robert E. Reys, "Standards-based Middle Grade Mathematics Curricula: Impact on Student Achievement," paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, 1998; and Harold L. Schoen and Steven W. Ziebarth, "A Progress Report on Student Achievement in the Core-Plus Mathematics Project Field Test," NCSM Journal of Mathematics Education Leadership, vol. l, no.3, 1997, pp.15 -23.

6. Robert E. Reys and Barbara J. Reys, "Standards-based Mathematics Curriculum Reform: Impediments and Supportive Structures," Journal of Mathematics Education Leadership, July 1997, pp. 3-8.  See also the case studies available on the NCTM website:
7. For more information about the specific services of each center, readers are invited to visit the centers' websites or to contact their directors.

BARBARA REYS is a professor of mathematics education and director of the Show-Me Center, University of Missouri-Columbia.  ERIC ROBINSON is an associate professor of mathematics and director of COMPASS (Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students), Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY.  SHEILA SCONIERS is director of the ARC Center, COMAP Inc., Lexington, MA.  JUNE MARK is co-director of the K-12 Mathematics Curriculum Center, Education Development Center, Inc, Newton, MA. The centers described in this article are supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (ESI 9729328, ESI-9714999, ESI-961968, and ESI-9617783), but the opinions expressed are those of the authors.

Copyright © 1997 COMPASS - All rights reserved

Last Revision: 11/07/05