From the NCSM President
Diane J. Briars
Fall 2009

Curriculum Matters

Over the past five years, there has been increasing discussion about the need for, and value of, common national standards to promote consistent, coherent, and challenging mathematics curricula for all students.

This spring, the National Governors Association (NGA) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) took a next step towards coherence and consistency across states with their Common Core Standards Initiative. NGA and CCSSO asked Achieve, Inc, the College Board, and ACT to develop a set of voluntary "common core standards" in mathematics and English/language arts that describe the knowledge and skills students need to be college- and career-ready when they leave high school. This initiative builds directly on recent efforts of leading organizations and states that have focused on developing college- and career-ready standards.

This initiative will produce two documents: College and Career Readiness Standards and grade specific K-12 standards. A preliminary draft of the Readiness Standards is available on; an updated draft will be released later this month for public review and comment. The K-12 standards development will begin this fall, with an expected release in 2010 Currently, 47 states have indicated their intent to voluntarily adopt the standards, i.e., align their standards to the common core, with the core representing at least 85% of the state's standards.

Working with NCTM and CBMS, NCSM members provided feedback on the initial Readiness Standards draft. NCSM will provide a formal review of the public draft, as well as disseminate information on the initiative though our website and new eNEWS. As mathematics education leaders, I encourage you to read and comment on the public draft, either individually, as part of a local or state leadership group, or post comments on the NCSM listserv.

As a leader, I also urge you to look at the Standards draft as a potentially useful professional development tool. Although there are issues and gaps in the content of the August draft (e.g., role of technology, attention to workforce readiness), its structure and features make it an effective catalyst for discussions of important teaching/learning/assessment issues.

The Standards:

  • are organized around ten principles, i.e., big ideas such as expressions, equations, functions, instead of around mathematical strands;
  • describe core concepts that students should understand, as well as core skills;
  • describe a "coherent understanding" of each principle, i.e., how principles are related and "how students should see the mathematics in this area";
  • contain a set of Mathematical Practices that are key to using mathematics in the workplace, further education, and in society in general; and
  • contain a set of Explanatory Problems that exemplify and delimit the range of tasks that students should be able to do.

Thus, the draft can be the basis of discussions of conceptual understanding, coherence, preparing students to be able to use mathematics outside of school, and instructional/assessment tasks, in addition to discussing the content itself.

Finally, remember that curriculum documents are only starting points for consistency and coherence. While important, they describe the intended curriculum. To ensure equity, access, and high levels of student achievement, we need to attend to the implemented curriculum-what teachers actually teach and how they teach it, and the attained curriculum- what students learn and how that learning is assessed. While standards set common expectations for what is taught, too often, individual teachers determine how the content is taught and assessed.

As leaders, it is easy to spend considerable time writing, aligning, and/or revising standards and curriculum documents. The danger is that such work can prevent us from addressing issues of teaching and learning in the classroom. As you work on consistency and coherence in your setting, I encourage you to attend to the implemented and attained curricula as well the intended one, i.e., consider issues such as:

  • Do teachers of the same grades or courses have common expectations/understandings of the concepts that students should understand, as well as the skills that they should acquire?
  • Do all teachers use tasks that engage students in mathematical thinking, reasoning, and concept development and implement them so that students do the thinking?
  • Do teachers of the same grade or course use common unit, semester, and/or final assessments?
  • Do the assessments measure conceptual understanding as well as skill attainment?

Supporting teachers in working towards consistency and coherence in the implemented and attained curricula is essential to achieving equity, access, and success for all students.

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