(This post might read like inside baseball for those who aren’t interested in our math education professional associations in the US. If that’s not your jam, feel free to skip this one.)
The news has broken that NCTM is planning to dissolve its partnership with the Math Forum, effectively dissolving the Math Forum, which has been an incredible leader in math education since 1992. As was entirely predictable, the math internet is freaking out at this news, for all the right reasons. I’m afraid this blowback is probably catching NCTM by surprise: it will be a much bigger deal to us than they probably anticipated. I wanted to take a stab at articulating why.
My first annual NCTM was in New Orleans, in 2014. One of my more searing memories was a dinner with a bunch of #MTBoS folks (MathTwitterBlogoSphere–a collection of math educators who share their work and support others online). At that dinner, there was serious angst and even some rage about NCTM. The general sentiment was, Why do I need NCTM when I get everything I need from you all?
Being a member of NCTM is expensive. There are significant annual dues: $124 if you want the journal. And then attending the conference costs thousands of dollars. This coming year, in DC, the conference block rooms start at $289 and go well into the mid $300s, without fees. Registration is $445. And then there’s airfare, meals, etc. Teachers are usually not funded to go to conferences, and some I know have to pay for their sub coverage to miss school (this is insane) and pay out-of-pocket for the conference.
At dinner, teachers wondered aloud about what they get for all that money. An annual conference and a journal was consensus. They didn’t feel much support the rest of the year, via affiliates. They didn’t see evidence of advocacy on the national stage (not saying it wasn’t happening; just that people didn’t see it). And, most of all, they saw zero interest or involvement from NCTM in the thriving online math community, the MTBoS, which was the best source of PD they knew.
There were interesting discussions. I learned the average age of an NCTM member was 55. The average age of people around that table was lower, probably early- to mid-40s. They were also passionate and exciting and innovative team players. They made amazing resources for each other and shared them freely. I remember thinking clearly If NCTM is irrelevant to these people, NCTM is going to die.
I wasn’t the only one with that thought. There was a lot of talk about what would happen. What obligations do current teachers have to support their national professional association? NCTM had been a leader in Math education for decades, and there’s gratitude for that work, and a desire to pay it forward. One option was to get very involved in NCTM and try to help it grow toward something more relevant for teachers, so membership would begin to rise again.
But did NCTM want that involvement? Or would they roll their eyes at the “kids” and their twitter and do everything they way it had always been done? In New Orleans, that felt like an open question to me. I’m sure I missed loads of nuance, but that was my impression. It was tense.
In 2015, two very big things happened that made that tension dissipate and dissappear. The first was the announcement at Twitter Math Camp that NCTM and the Math Forum were merging. The optics of this announcement mattered. It was at Twitter Math Camp–the conference the MTBoS created to meet their needs.
— Andrew Stadel (@mr_stadel) July 24, 2015
I can’t speak for everyone in that room or following along online, but for me, this announcement was enormous. At that point, I knew four of the Math Forum people–Max, Annie, Suzanne, and Steve–and admired them so much in every possible way. NCTM’s decision to merge with the Math Forum showed that NCTM was moving toward the future, bringing on people with expertise and relationships in the online world, and recognizing and picking up talent. It was huge. It brought them credibility.
The second thing that happened in 2015 was Nashville. NCTM intentionally invited MTBoS participation on a conference committee, and wow did that make a difference. Robert Kaplinsky shared about his experience online. The keynote was an invitation to join the MTBoS. There was a tweet-up afterward, and Diane Briar came. I remember some of the very same people who were upset in New Orleans saying, “I feel none of that tension now.” We were all excited to see these worlds coming together. To see NCTM becoming more inclusive and inviting and forward-leaning. To see no choice necessary. It felt like our professional association had recognized what we needed, and adapted and evolved. The future looked bright.
Since then, there’s been Math Forum and MTBoS representation on every committee. NCTM offered to host game night, supported ShadowCon, and tweets much more actively. It took a year for the legal teams to allow the Math Forum to work at NCTM, but as soon as they could, they made great and visible changes to NCTM. As just one example, The Math Forum made NCTM Central a thriving part of conferences, drawing many of us into the exhibit hall throughout the conference. We’ve made so much progress.
But now, NCTM is ending it’s partnership with the Math Forum and dissolving its resources and contributions. Institutions like Problem of the Week (POW) and Ask Dr. Math will be lost, which impact tens of thousands of students annually. NCTM owns the brand The Math Forum, and it’s making it go away.
Like many others, I am crushed and angry and worried. First, the people at the Math Forum are some of the most gracious, smart, professional people I know. I mean, I love these people. I am so grateful for all their work, from bringing us together and raising new voices at ignites to the positive, productive attitude they’ve brought to every conference and committee. I can’t believe NCTM is disbanding them. My first concern is for Max, Annie, Suzanne, Steve, Richard, and Tracey.
My second concern is for the future of NCTM. This move threatens all the hard work and relationship-building they’ve been doing. Over the past few years, they’ve built a lot of loyalty among the MTBoS. I have been excited for the future, knowing the Math Forum people are there and working behind the scenes. Now, I honestly don’t know what the future holds.
This move is so damaging. Damaging to trust, relationships, credibility.
It’s not too late to repair, though. I hope beyond hope that the NCTM board will reconsider this decision and repair these relationships. This is a moment to determine the future.
I think Graham summed it up perfectly: