Sustainability: Out-Live Out-Last Out-Reach
Home  |  Standard Version

The Impact of Policy Decisions on Sustainability Efforts of Mathematics Education Reform

Carol Fry Bohlin

The Local Systemic Change (LSC) program has been instrumental in promoting (NCTM) Standards-based reform within targeted districts across the United States for the past 8 years. Teachers credit LSC training and support with helping them to feel both professionally and personally empowered. Compared with control groups, teachers involved in LSC training demonstrate a greater understanding of the mathematical topics that they teach and are confident in the professional decisions they make regarding mathematics curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In short, they are empowered professionals.

Active involvement in LSC activities also results in an increase in teacher efficacy. Participants experience a sense of renewed confidence in their ability to reach all students and a conviction in their ability to make sense of challenging mathematics problems. Castle and Aichele (1994) discuss the importance of developing professional autonomy, a key characteristic of a reflective, professional educator and of a teacher leader. Autonomous teachers are independent, confident, informed decision makers who look for opportunities to keep current professionally and who continually construct and reconstruct what they know about teaching and learning. Their views are not necessarily in alignment with or influenced by policy decisions (Firestone & Pennell, 1997). This characteristic is closely related to the concept of "self-sustaining, generative change"--the continued growth and problem solving of reflective teachers who make "changes in their basic epistemological perspectives, their knowledge of what it means to learn, as well as their conceptions of classroom practice" (Franke, Carpenter, Fennema, Ansell, & Behrend, 1998).

What mechanisms can help sustain and support these empowered teachers after the LSC has ended? What is the impact on these teachers' practices and their sense of efficacy and professionalism when state and national policies are implemented that are not congruent with their beliefs and values related to education? California provides a case in point of how widely-embraced reform policies and practices in mathematics education can be quickly dismantled by a rapid succession of policy shifts--and how this can affect teachers' views of themselves as efficacious professionals. The following paragraphs provide a brief description of these major shifts in policy/practice, the reaction of teacher leaders, and evidence of similar shifts occurring at the national level.

During the past five years, California has witnessed a rapid evolution in state policy regarding mathematics education curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. This rapid transformation was the product of a highly effective, focused effort by California's State Board of Education (SBE) with the influence and support of a relatively small number of research mathematicians espousing strong, traditional views of mathematics curriculum and instruction. Within the course of a few years, the Board was able to replace nearly two decades of progressive reforms in mathematics education with a new, tightly integrated traditional system. Members of the SBE worked closely with several advisors from the Mathematics Departments at Stanford University and UC Berkeley to help craft the state's new mathematics content standards (December, 1997) and Mathematics Framework (1999).

A concerted effort was made to tie textbook adoptions with the new grade-level, skills-based standards. Not one of the instructional programs on the state-approved list in 1994appeared on the list in 2001 (and vice versa). Progressive curricula such as MathLand (Creative Publications) and Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (TERC) that were approved by the SBE in the 1994 textbook adoption and were in numerous districts around the state were rapidly replaced with books from the list of more traditional books (e.g., Saxon, Scott Foresman) approved in 2001. Although two levels of state review approved Everyday Math during the 2001 adoption process, it ultimately was rejected by the State Board of Education, based in part on the belief that the program required a greater level of mathematical sophistication than most elementary teachers possess in order to implement the program well. Waivers to use textbook monies to purchase materials not on the approved list (including Everyday Math) have been difficult to obtain from the SBE due to its contention that students and teachers need (California) standards-based books in order to do well on the mandatory state tests (currently the SAT 9 and California Standards Test--both multiple choice tests). Calculators, discouraged in the 1999 Mathematics Framework for grades K-6, disappeared from many classrooms.

Since student test performance is used to determine each school's rating (its "Academic Performance Index" or API) and because the API score is tied to various financial incentives and sanctions, administrators have likewise been hesitant to use textbooks that aren't aligned with the state standards set for each grade level. Therefore, leaders of a number of Local Systemic Change sites in California found themselves in a quandary as pressure was placed on districts to replace math programs like MathLand with state-adopted texts like Saxon in an attempt to quickly improve performance on the skills-based standardized tests.

The SBE and governor's office also exercised considerable control over other aspects of K-12 mathematics professional development. For several key initiatives (e.g., AB 1331, AB 466), state professional development monies could only be used for programs specifically approved by the SBE and delivered by SBE-approved providers. The California Mathematics Project, a powerful statewide teacher leadership project since 1982 and for many years a champion of progressive mathematics reforms, was written out of a draft of Governor Pete Wilson's budget in 1998. Negotiations restored the project, but under new legislation--AB 1734. This bill required that the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs) use the state content standards as the principal reference point for CSMP-sponsored professional development activities. Mathematics content is to be the primary focus of California Mathematics Project (CMP) institutes and follow-ups, and individuals with doctorates in mathematics--as opposed to teachers or professors of education--are required to serve in a key leadership position at CMP sites and to monitor all mathematics content delivered.

The primary point of sharing this brief history of recent reforms in California is to raise an issue that has been little discussed and generally ignored by the press--the disenfranchisement of mathematics teacher educators and K-12 classroom teachers during the course of these reforms. During the years of progressive mathematics reform in California (early 80's through the mid-90's), teachers and teacher educators enjoyed a professionally fulfilling and challenging period of professional empowerment and engagement. During that period of time, teachers were heavily involved in developing alternative curricula ("replacement units"), in learning how to assess mathematical understanding and how to evaluate responses to open-ended questions, in serving in key leadership positions on statewide committees and in the California Mathematics Project, and in exploring new ways to effectively develop their students' conceptual understanding of mathematics. As described above, in the late 1990's this period of empowerment came to an abrupt halt as power became concentrated in the hands of the SBE and a small number of influential mathematicians who held a traditional view of K-12 mathematics. This served to greatly demoralize teachers (especially the most active teacher leaders) and professors of mathematics education as they found their voices repeatedly ignored and their opinions and skills denigrated.

A recent dissertation, The Cycle of Reform in Mathematics Education and Teachers’ Perceptions of Their Profession (Treahy, 2002), details the personal experiences and feelings of K-12 teachers in California during the late 1980s and the decade of the 1990s. A number of the teacher leaders that Treahy interviewed reported a significant loss of morale and autonomy as a result of the recent state policy reforms. Two teachers described the period from 1997 until 2001 as a "Period of Darkness" and a "Period of Betrayal." The years 1994-1997 were characterized as a "Period of Politics" and a "Period of Surprise." The period from 1989-1994, during which progressive mathematics reform was at its peak in California, was described as a "Period of Awakening" and "A Period of Opportunity." Treahy found that many of the most talented and involved teachers have left the classroom as a result of the loss of power, input, respect, and professional autonomy, thus exacerbating the state's shortage of experienced, highly trained teachers. (See for a recent article corroborating this view.)

What has happened in California can easily happen at the national level under the No Child Left Behind legislation. There is currently a letter-writing campaign to NSF Director Rita Colwell urging the withholding of funds supporting NSF's development and promotion (in the Implementation Centers) of mathematics programs such as Investigations. The writers of these letters assert that these programs "harm children." There are also letters being written to the House Science Committee urging close oversight of the Education and Human Resources (EHR) Division of NSF and a broadening of the types of mathematics curricula supported and marketed, as well as abandoning "advocacy research" conducted by the program developers. Instead, research with randomized experimental designs is promoted to thwart the proliferation of "education fads" such as the reform mathematics curricula supported by NSF. On page 48 of the "U.S. Department of Education's Strategic Plan for 2002-2007" (, this plan is articulated:

Unlike medicine, agriculture and industrial production, the field of education operates largely on the basis of ideology and professional consensus. As such, it is subject to fads and is incapable of the cumulative progress that follows from the application of the scientific method and from the systematic collection and use of objective information in policy making. We will change education to make it an evidence-based field. We will accomplish this goal by dramatically improving the quality and relevance of research funded or conducted by the Department, by providing policy makers, educators, parents, and other concerned citizens with ready access to syntheses of research and objective information that allow more informed and effective decisions, and by encouraging the use of this knowledge...

Objective 4.1 in the Strategic Plan states: "Raise the quality of research funded or conducted by the Department." The time line for the performance measures for this objective appears in a chart on page 50 in the DoE report. For projects and publications funded by the Department of Education that address causal questions, the performance measure for "Use of randomized experimental designs" (as opposed to qualitative research or quasi-experimental designs) is 75% by 2004. A similar focus on experimental research was used by Douglas Carnine and his associates in a 1998 report to provide information for "research-based" practices in mathematics education in California. So far, this document has had relatively little impact in California due to considerable criticism of its limited interpretation of "research" and other aspects of its design. However, there is concern that similar assessments of the mathematics education research may be conducted by those with a narrow view of research (what constitutes evidence), a bias toward a particular outcome, and possible conflict of interest (e.g., Carnine is an advocate of direct instruction and an author of DI materials) and that these assessments will be used to inform/mandate national mathematics education practices. Mandates for using a limited number of "research-based" programs would further erode the academic freedom and the professionalism of teachers in selecting materials and teaching approaches appropriate to their particular situation. The reading community has already been faced with this challenge.

The following excerpt is taken from a letter by the International Reading Association (IRA) to Secretary Paige on 15 April 2002: "In a New York Times article by Diana Jean Schemo on January 8, 2002, Assistant Secretary Neuman was quoted as follows:

This July, the Department of Education will send education officials around the country guides that will "carefully content analyze all core reading programs to see whether or not they are scientifically based," on the National Reading Panel's findings.  Poor school districts that do not use a standardized reading curriculum "would have to provide evidence they [their materials] work," she said, adding, "I suggest they purchase a core reading program."

The fear among the IRA leadership is that a limited number of skills-based, scripted programs will become a federal mandate in order to receive federal monies. The obvious concern among mathematics educators is that a similar restriction will be placed on mathematics curricular materials. If this were to happen, how would states, districts, school sites, and teachers respond? Can systemic reform survive in such an environment among committed teachers with a vision for reform or will they too become disillusioned and demoralized to the point of leaving the classroom as did a number of the teacher leaders in Treahy's California study? If systemic reform is to survive assaults on professional decision-making regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment, what type of supports need to be in place to sustain and revitalize teachers?

Is compromise at the national level possible? Vermont has recently stated that it would consider foregoing federal dollars to avoid complying with the President's plan. Frustrated by the lack of input by teachers in setting education policy, the California Teachers' Association sponsored two bills that passed the state Assembly Education Committee on 24 April 2002 to give teachers more decision-making power in curriculum selection and implementation and overhaul the existing assessment and accountability system. Are such drastic actions necessary to allow for professional freedom? Is there a way to work productively within the system to effect change and exert significant influence?

The challenges that the mathematics reform community has faced recently in California and will be facing nationally for at least the next several years promise to be considerable. When state or national policies increasingly take the decision making power out of the hands of teachers (and educators) and place then in the hands of a relatively small group of policy makers, feelings of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and ultimately disillusionment among many of the most talented teachers and mathematics educators are often the unintended and unfortunate results. A key challenge is to be vigilant in the search for strategies to support and empower teachers to continue doing what they know is best for students and to provide paths that they may continue to grow in this knowledge.

 Join Discussion  click for standard version of page

Home | Keynote | Poster Hall | Panels | Discussants Reflect | Resources | Who's Here | Open Discussion | Info Center
© TERC 2002, all rights reserved.