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An LSC Project's Engagement with State Policy: The Indiana Story

Bill Frascella

Introduction. I'd like to tell a story of an Indiana math war and the peace treaty that followed. It started, in April 2000, when our LSC project, the Indiana Mathematics Initiative (IMI), arrived, extremely concerned, at the door of the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). What occasioned this visit was the publication by IDOE of a first draft of K-12 academic mathematics standards. IMI felt this draft was extremely limited and not nearly as good as the standards they would be replacing. Put on the fast track, this draft was expected to develop into, with very minor changes, the official state standards in early fall 2000, well before the general elections. Beginning with that April visit, IMI's engagement with the IDOE went through stages of confrontation, negotiation, and compromise. In April most of us didn't believe negotiation with IDOE, let alone compromise, was even a possibility. The compromises struck by IMI and the IDOE that fall-a peace treaty of sorts-were surprising. Still more surprising is the fact that both parties are still honoring the agreements they made almost two years ago.

During the last two years I have thought a lot about this Indiana math war and tried to explain why all of us at IMI have been surprised that things worked out as well as they have. I think one reason for my surprise was I didn't accurately understand the political context and motivation driving Indiana to adopt new mathematics standards. I had been assuming that all state fights over math standards are two sides struggling over what math content and pedagogy should drive teaching and learning in the preK-12 classrooms: one side carrying the banner of NCTM, the other of Mathematically Correct. Though this NCTM/Mathematically Correct dichotomy is probably involved in most math wars, I now believe all math wars are not the same. One important way they differ is how much of the war's intensity is being fueled by this dichotomy. Back in 2000, I wasn't looking at things like this. My view then was more black and white and that most math wars were based on what I thought was going on in California, where the NCTM/Mathematically Correct dichotomy was fueling of the fires of war. In April 2000, I thought the same was happening in Indiana. I was wrong.

I hope this story of an Indiana struggle I will tell suggests that state contexts in which math wars occur come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. As LSC leaders, we need to become familiar with state contexts in which our projects operate. If and when math wars break out on our watch, we need this knowledge to plan responses and develop strategies.


Pre-2000 Standards and State Assessments. To understand why the war got started you have to know why the state decided to replace its math standards. Before 2000, the state mathematics standards, called the Mathematical Proficiencies, were very close in content and style to the 1989 NCTM standards. In the mid-nineties the Proficiencies provided the impetus for reform efforts in the state. This is what brought together the early group of IMI leaders. At the time, the thinking among IMI folk was that everything would eventually be aligned with these standards, including state assessments. In Indiana, state assessments, called ISTEP Examinations, are given at the third, sixth, eighth and tenth grades and were not tightly aligned with the state standards. Also, there were no real teeth to these assessments. Whether you did well or whether you did poorly as a district, as a building, or as a teacher there was little or no accountability.

Understanding this, IMI leaders began to appreciate why it was so challenging to get teachers, not part of the "reform choir", and building administrators to take the LSC reform agenda more seriously. Principals had little motivation to promote standards-based instruction, though of course most continued to yearn to improve their state assessment scores. No direct connection was seen between ISTEP score improvement and the kind of standards based instruction IMI was assisting teachers to deliver.


Indiana Assessment Becomes High Stakes. In 2000, the Indiana legislature gives teeth to the state's assessment exams. In particular, in 2000, a dramatic step was taken when the tenth grade ISTEP assessment becomes the general qualifying examination (GQE) for high school graduation. With the 2000 high school class, the tenth grade ISTEP exam becomes a graduation requirement. If you don't pass the GQE, you don't graduate.

At the same time, court cases were threatening Indiana's fledgling accountability system. Courts were making it clear that if so much was going to hinge on this tenth grade qualifying examination, then the state had to demonstrably insure that all students have been given an opportunity pass it. In addition to being responsible for content of the GQE, the state now found itself in the position of having to insure that instruction in all Indiana math classrooms provides all students with an opportunity to learn that content. It had to insure that the GQE graduation requirement was equitable. To insure that the GQE requirement will be equitable, the state must find ways to align classroom instruction and the state assessments. Standards suggest an obvious strategy to accomplish this. If teachers align their instruction to the standards and the state aligns its assessments to these same standards, both instruction and assessment will be aligned to each other, insuring that all students have had the opportunity to learn the material found on the GQE. In addition to identifying the mathematics content to be covered in the schools, the Indiana math standards now takes on the responsibility of insuring the equity of the state's high school graduation requirement. This role of the math standards, though not obvious, is an important one for state officials and other policy makers.

It is quite likely that the high priority Indiana places on developing a tightly aligned system of instruction, assessment, and standards-insuring an equitable GQE graduation requirement-is independent (or at least loosely related) from how it values the content of those standards. In 2000, I now believe, Indiana was placing more importance on having its math standards be part of a tightly aligned system (with instruction and assessment) to insure equity than on identifying the specific mathematical content of the state's K-12 curriculum. In the spring and summer of 2000, I had no idea that these considerations might be relevant to understand what was happening at IDOE. Most of us at IMI saw these events as part of a struggle for what the standards should look like (e.g., how close to NCTM's Principles and Standards 2000) and not their role to establish alignment and, through it, insure equity.

I think it makes a lot of sense to see this as the primary context in which IDOE develops the April draft of new math standards. I don't mean to suggest that there were no other factors coming into play. In fact, it is clear that there were activities involving the Indiana Chamber of Commerce that would suggest they were advocating "Mathematically Correct" kinds of causes.

IMI got involved with this draft as soon as we got wind of it. We weren't happy with this draft for several reasons, including the following. First, they weren't nearly as good as the Proficiencies that they were replacing. Second, the development process had little involvement of Indiana K-12 teachers and administrators, and university mathematicians and mathematics educators.

We formed a small task force of four and went to the IDOE and said, "There are serious problems with this draft. We'd like to be able to help you develop ways of getting this draft to Indiana teachers and administrators before it gets adopted." They rejected this offer, as they felt delays this would entail were not acceptable. In fact, as we were perceived as a group that wouldn't go easily go away, they initially started freezing us out. To achieve IDOE recognition and any standing as a legitimate partner in negotiation we had to make our objections and ourselves known to the public. We contacted the Associated Press representative in the Indianapolis statehouse and told him about the saga that was unfolding about the new math standards. The AP rep understood Indianapolis and Indiana politics, and wrote a piece on what was going on, and IMI's role in it. It ran in most of the state's big city newspapers and it got everyone's attention.


From that point, the rhythm of the war changed and we went from a period of confrontation to one of negotiation. We were invited to speak before the Governor's Education Roundtable, the chief education policymaking body in the state and then invited to form a working group with IDOE personnel to develop an improved draft. Negotiations occurred over a six-week period. Though it was clear that neither the draft nor the timetable was going to change to our liking, we did identify important areas where IDOE and IMI could compromise. Here are the key agreements IMI and IDOE reached in late August 2000.

  1. IDOE agreed to include six pages of prefatory material (authored by IMI) that would be at the beginning of the official state teachers' edition of the math standards. In these six pages we said that these standards should be understood and implemented within the framework of NCTM's Principles and Standards that had come out earlier that year. Our aim here was to provided teachers with a rich context of how these standards may be implemented, as well as securing an in-print commitment that these standards are at least on the road to the NCTM vision. IDOE even cited IMI in a forward message to this six page preface, saying, "The Indiana Council of Teachers of Mathematics (ICTM) and the Indiana Mathematics Initiative (IMI) recommend use of NCTM Principles and Standards to Indiana teachers as a basis for effective implementation of Indiana's math standards."
  2. IDOE agreed that all the process standards of the NCTM's Principles and Standards would be assessed within the state's content standards.
  3. The IDOE agreed that a hurried process for developing new standards would be avoided in the future. Moreover, they agreed to establish a regular multi-year cycle for the revising and reviewing of standards would be put in place.
  4. In return, IMI agreed to support these state standards and design our project's professional development activities to reflect this support.

It is natural to ask me, "Do you think making this compromise was worth it." I think there are two reasons for my "Yes" answer. First, there is the obvious survival issue. The message from IDOE to districts, principals, and teachers to deliver instruction strictly aligned with the state standards was becoming loud and clear. Teachers and administrators could not commit to significant amounts of time to professional development activities, if those activities did not directly assist them to address the new state's standards. It was as simple as that. One reason for making the compromise was that to go against these standards, as imperfect as they are, would be the death knell of the project and lead to a drastic slowdown in the considerable reform momentum that had been developed in the IMI districts.

The second explanation of why we compromised is more positive and has to do with the genuine opportunity to move forward our LSC reform agenda that this agreement with the IDOE created. With the changes in state policy occurring in 2000, overnight it appeared that standards, and standard-based instruction must being taken seriously by principals and teachers. It was no longer a choice; it had become state policy. There were many teachers, who, pre-2000, had resisted even thinking about standards. Now, many in this group were beginning to accept that aligning their instruction with the new state standards was no longer an optional matter.

The equity issue driving the state's accountability system was beginning to get districts, principals and teachers to see the virtue in things like doing away with tracking and the advantages of cooperative learning, technology and other reform-minded pedagogy. They started to understand them as powerful ways to insure that standards-based instruction can reach all students. All of a sudden, IMI's reform agenda has new allies. I think that if you talk about this policy change and its relation to our LSC agenda in the right way, teachers and administrators are going to see that the nuts and bolts of a reform classroom are the common sense ways of achieving equity, of leaving no student behind. Even the imperfect standards that are embedded in the Indiana equity-driven accountability system offer such an opportunity.

Another example of an opportunity that this adoption has created is the project's response to a question that all of our teachers were asking, "Okay, how well are our NSF-funded materials aligned with the standards?" We responded by developing a gap analysis of the materials that this project was based on. We brought teachers together, in summer workshops in 2001, to collaborate with project staff and each other on this gap analysis. Not only were gaps identified, the teachers also wrote lesson plans to fill them. These activities of identifying gaps and developing gap-filling lesson plans allowed our teachers-some, for the first time-to look at textbooks not as a linear (page by page) path through the material, but as a set of resource materials that can help (or hinder) them in reaching certain classroom goals. I do not think this kind of experience was possible prior to the year 2000. Other issues we can now deal with in our professional development is sequencing, and the challenge of how to address the large number standards (and the indicators they contain) at each grade level. Teachers are beginning to see that textbooks and supplementary lesson plans have to be much more cleverly devised, and how the pedagogy of cooperative learning and technology is essential to reaching their goals.

You might want to ask me another question, "Do you feel like you compromised values that were really important to you, when you engaged so closely with the state's political process?" My quick answer is 'no'." But this requires more of an explanation. It's likely that Indiana, unlike some states, see the primary importance of their state's academic standards as the tool that is needed to align instruction and assessment. Following this logic, I do not think Indiana has a strong ideological attachment to the more traditional aspects of its new math standards. For example, I do not believe there exists in Indiana any organized opposition to NCTM standards of the kind mounted by Mathematically Correct in California. I think the state is more open to dialogue and pro-reform arguments. A positive sign pointing in this direction is the fact that the IDOE now sends a regular representative to all bi-monthly IMI district coordinator meetings.

Another reason why I think we made the right decision to "play ball" is that there are many skills needed to deliver standards-based instruction that are independent of the nature and content of the standards that instruction would be delivering. Without these skills, teachers are not going to be able to provide effective standards-based teaching and learning even when great standards are in place. One of these skills I mentioned above is being able to look at their textbooks more critically, not as a kind of a catechism where one thing just follows another.

I don't think we have compromised our values. The LSC and IMI reform goals are still in place. What has changed-emotionally, psychologically, and strategically-is the recognition that reaching project goals is not going to occur overnight. When I put on my mathematician's hat, I sometimes find it easy to imagine that the obvious way to go from point A to point B is to follow a straight line. But a straight line almost never represents progress in an LSC project. That path, which often appears to be a random walk, is the road to B.

What evidence do I have that the IMI-IDOE compromise, the adjustment, if you will, is the right one? My major reason for optimism is our LSC project is reaching teachers more effectively since 2000. Our workshops have been much more effective in getting teachers to acquire standards-based skills. Professional development for teachers that significantly incorporates standards that all teachers take seriously has a lot of advantages.

Now I'll end with several questions for you to engage in:

  • How well is your state assessment aligned with your state standards?
  • Is performance on your state assessment linked in any way to administrative consequences?
  • What importance does your state give to the role of their standards to provide a framework to align instruction and assessment? Compare that importance to how it values the mathematical content of those same standards.

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