IAS/PCMI: Advancing a Common Curriculum in Mathematics

The Institute for Advanced Study’s Park City Mathematics Institute (PCMI) has run a summer program for secondary school mathematics teacher-leaders since 1994. About fifty nationally selected secondary mathematics teachers participate in the three-week institute each year. Gradually over the years, the program, with its three components —doing mathematics, reflecting on practice, and becoming a resource to colleagues and the profession—has developed into one of the premier programs for the professional development of mathematics teachers in the United States. It is argu­ably unsurpassed in overall quality.

However, the small numbers of teachers that can be served directly by this program, together with its sizable cost (long supported by the National Science Foundation), have brought the program to a crossroads of sorts. The PCMI Secondary School Teachers Program must either increase its influence on national mathematical development at the secondary level or reduce the cost of its program and so, inevitably, its quality.
Happily, the program arrives at this crossroads at a most fortuitous moment in our nation’s educational history. The reason for this is the advent of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM), a common set of norms for curriculum and practice at each grade level, that has been voluntarily agreed to by forty-four of the fifty states. (Readers wishing to familiarize themselves with the content of CCSSM are referred to www.corestandards.org.)

CCSSM is to be implemented gradually in the nation’s classrooms over the coming decade. This is by far the closest our nation has ever come to national standards and a common curriculum in the teaching of mathematics. The common mathematical experience at comparable grade levels, long the practice in most other nations, is coming within reach in the United States!

The advantages in terms of coherent progressions in learning, transferable from district to district and state to state in a mobile society, are clear. The opportunities for our nation’s mathematics teachers themselves are perhaps less apparent but equally real. It is in this area that the IAS Park City Mathematics Institute has a new, distinctive, and potentially influential role to play.

CCSSM sets the bar for the nation’s teachers and students at the high end of the current U.S. spectrum. Many mathematics teachers are prepared and fully ready to implement the skills and practices, mathematical and pedagogical, demanded by this new “common text.” But it is likely that many more are not. Add to that the fact that the number of mathematics teachers is so large that only teachers themselves can form a critical leadership mass to take on the major task of supporting their colleagues through this change. It will take sustained work of teacher-leaders with individuals and small groups of colleagues to fuel the successful implementation of CCSSM. It is precisely in the formation and sustenance of this group of teacher-leaders that the future of the IAS Park City program lies.

PCMI cannot, however, realize that future role acting alone. So it has recently partnered with Math for America, a much larger program whose national agenda for mathematics teaching is most closely aligned with that of PCMI itself. During the 2011 PCMI summer program, Math for America and PCMI convened a meeting of leaders of the major national constituencies in the teaching of mathematics. The group met around the premise that teacher leadership will have to be identified and supported for the massive professional development challenge that the advent of CCSSM represents. From this meeting, a consortium of ten organizations—made up of Math for America; PCMI; Achieve; American Federation of Teachers; Association of Mathematics Teacher-Educators; Association of State Supervisors of Mathematics; Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences; Institute of Mathematics and Education; National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics; and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics—formed an ad hoc committee to work cooperatively to help spur the development of mathematics teacher-leaders.

At least as importantly, the committee sees the implementation of the CCSSM as the vehicle toward a larger and more fundamental goal, namely the enhancement of the status of mathematics teachers themselves. The positive change in professional status would rest on the consolidation of a set of rigorous professional standards and norms, maintained and managed from within the profession itself, as is the case with other professions such as law, medicine, and higher education. One of the first actions of this ad hoc committee was to identify six national teacher-leaders to join its ranks and eight more teacher-leaders to work with the Institute of Mathematics and Education to produce a CCSSM implementation toolkit. Work on the toolkit has begun. It will be piloted in teacher professional development settings around the country in 2012, and refined by teacher teams at this summer’s PCMI program. The committee itself will also reconvene at PCMI during the summer institute as well.

As an important companion-piece to these efforts on the national front, PCMI runs a one-week international seminar each summer. Through the generosity of a private donor, we learn in depth about the teaching of mathematics in other societies around the world. Each year, teams consisting of a currently practicing mathematics teacher and a developer of curriculum, education ministry official, or teacher educator from eight countries around the world come together to compare their own country’s response to common educational problems with that of the other countries around the table. These seminars bring home to us the challenges that we in the United States face in order to hold our own among the large and increasing numbers of highly trained professionals in the mathematical sciences from an ever-widening spectrum of countries and cultures. What we learn from abroad, and the fact that, in the future, our nation’s young people must be competitive with those international professionals and the products of their educational systems, are driving forces behind the almost universal buy-in to CCSSM by the sovereign states.

At long last our country is poised to engage in a systemic effort to face that challenge, at least when it comes to the teaching and learning of mathematics itself and the mathematical skills required by related disciplines. PCMI and Math for America are delighted to have the opportunity to host this joint effort using CCSSM as a common text. For PCMI and its Secondary School Teachers Program this signifies a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a more influential contributor to the quality of mathematics teaching around the U.S.

The IAS Park City program, grounded as it is in the quality of the mathematics and the mathematical integrity of teachers, is singularly well placed to seize the opportunity.

Charles Herbert Clemens, Professor of Mathematics at the Ohio State University, is a former Director of PCMI and Member (1968–70, 2001–02) in the School of Mathematics.