NCTM / NCSM: Where Are The Kids?

I’m grateful, again, to Key Curriculum, for luring me down to NCSM; to Ihor Charischak, for extending my stay through NCTM; and to Nana, for letting me stay in the guest room. Both conferences were worth my time, particularly NCSM, where my ratio of session hits to session misses was unbelievably high.

I had a variation on the same conversation with six or seven people at both conferences, people who were all closer to the end of their careers than the start, people with elevated angles of sight on math education in the U.S. (elevated enough that several specifically told me not to quote them on my blog), and they all wondered the same thing:

Where are the new teacher-leaders?

One individual clocked the average age of an NCSM attendee at 57. Another, an edtech vendor, said that the biggest liability to his business was his own age. I received a lot of kind notes on my Ignite session but some of the praise was really hyperbolic, predictions about my place in math education that, based on five minutes in front of a projector screen, were flatly unreasonable, and indicative of a certain desperation to point to someone — anyone — on the other side of a yawning leadership gap.

NCTM and NCSM need to convince younger math teachers and younger teacher-leaders of their value. We can do that and bridge the leadership gap with the same solution:

Make it really, really easy for new teachers to connect with mentors over the Internet and vice versa.

Many opportunities exist for older, talented educators to mentor younger educators. Crucially, though, few of them demand any less than an eight-hour-a-day commitment. Teacher mentorship is currently a full-time job in the U.S. Or, if you’re working in an induction program, two hours per week with two or three new teachers. I don’t know how to sell that investment to any of the six or seven people I spoke with in San Diego, all of whom have day jobs.

There are very few high-yield investments for twenty minutes per day of an amazing educator’s time, but that can change.

We need to give Stack Exchange a long look. Stack Overflow is the first stop for anyone looking to crowdsource a programming question and the people behind it have decided to extend their platform to other disciplines. Their stated goal is to “make the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions.” You can connect those dots.

I won’t summarize all the factors that have made Stack Overflow a valuable resource for developers though my opinion is that many of them would translate into value for teachers. I encourage you, instead, to read their FAQ. Read some sample questions. Then come back here and let us know how you could see yourself working on this bridge between expert and novice educators, if at all.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I’m a little confused by your proposal. Are you saying NCTM should operate a Stack Exchange? It would be excellent in practice, but seems like an idea whose time is still to come. I’d be a little pessimistic because
    – NCTM is not terribly withit w.r.t. how people share information
    – Teachers are not terribly withit w.r.t. how they share information. I mean, the present, limited, company reading this is a drop in the bucket compared to the community at large.
    – NCTM will make you login with your current membership number to access it, but this seems like it needs to operate at scale. This kind of barrier is going to be like a lead weight. How effective would Stack Overflow be if there were a pay barrier to even view it?

    Here’s hoping somebody from NCTM is reading this and thinking “We’ll show her!”

  2. Hm. I think at a certain point in the post I switched from describing “what will preserve NCTM’s waning relevance” to describing “what math education could really use, and if NCTM wants to scratch that itch, then great, but if not, may their slide to irrelevance be quick and graceful.”

  3. Thanks for acknowledging my small part in getting you to the conferences. It was a special treat for me to watch you “do your thing.” A couple of my heros are named Kennedy and when I was your age I heard one of them say “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not?” We all “know” that math education will never really change. The conserving forces are too powerful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue that change. And what gives me hope is that teachers like you individually and in aggregate will make the dreams reality. As another Kennedy said ““The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.”
    Thank you.

  4. Bill Bradley

    May 5, 2010 - 8:40 am -

    Blogs and Wikis are at least a start. I have mentioned them and provided some recommended reading lists and starting points to all of the student teachers and classroom observers that I have seen this year. I have also given them to their University Instructors, letting them know that they’re the best professional development tool that I have ever seen.
    The problem is of course getting the word out in the first place, and the lack of a real organized or centralized source. There’s no Slashdot, Boing Boing, or Digg for teachers (and if there was, it would probably be blocked by my web filter at school like those sites are). That’s a shame, because most of us are teaching the same topics. If you have an amazing lesson for parallel lines, or systems of equations, where would you even go to try to share it or look for suggestions or constructive criticism? Well, obviously Dan would post it here. That’s a special case, I’m hoping for a general solution to the problem.

  5. Perhaps to address the issue of the lack of “new” teacher-leaders, my question might be, why should a “new” teacher take on any leadership roles? What are the pull or push factors? Maybe the issue resides in why there are less “new” teachers in the field.

    Given the current economic conditions, could the teaching market simply be super saturated with talent? Speaking for us Math teachers, if I can take my Math degree and make more money doing something that I enjoy that is not teaching, why teach?

    Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the implosion of the public education system as the Internet and technology revolutionize how people learn and therefore redefining the teacher role; therefore redefining the teacher-leader role.

    I would say that I hold you, Dan, as a teacher-leader that I look up to for guidance and encouragement. Though we have never met, you blog is sufficient for me at this time.

    Could blogs and other technologies like a Stack Exchange, help “new” teacher revolutionize education?

  6. Bill – Have you checked out BetterLesson? It was my immediate reaction to your “Where would you go…” question. I don’t know if it fits the ‘get constructive criticism’ piece, but I think it’s the best solution for what you seek that we have so far.

  7. New teacher-leaders and potential teacher leaders? Here in CA we’re busy being laid off.

  8. Bill Bradley

    May 6, 2010 - 6:19 am -

    Thanks! I’ve bookmarked both EdCrowd and BetterLesson. EdCrowd is much closer to what I’m referring to (if you look at Slashdot, BoingBoing, or Digg you’ll see what I mean). Something that’s community submitted and moderated.
    In my view education desperately needs to go from the One->Many model to the Many->Many model both in terms of teacher training, collaboration, and in instruction. I think that the best “leaders” in education will be ones who (like Dan) not only present “This is what I’m doing” but encourage discussion, solicit input, and take feedback. The new and student teachers that I work with seem equally surprised that I know only share my materials, but ask for feedback on how to improve it. In my mind that should be the rule, not the exception.
    @michael: In terms of teaching vs. better paying jobs, that’s what destroyed Computer Science education in primary and secondary schools. What I learned in my High School programming classes in the 1980s is now Junior and Senior level CS major material because there is no computer programming begin taught at lower levels. Anyone capable could make far more money (and have a better work environment) in industry.

  9. I’d like to invite any California teachers interested in teacher leadership to consider joining the Accomplished Caifornia Teachers network. Our group consists of nearly 150 teachers from all school levels and subject areas and most regions of the state. Our focus is not mathematics, of course, but one of our aims is to be a resource for our members, so that those in search of models and advice would have a place to look. We’re also working to amplify teacher voice in policy and media. My name (above) is linked to our blog, and from there you can find the rest of our info and online presence.

  10. Great post! As a new math teacher, I’ve been trying to find resources beyond a scattering of blogs and the friends I made while pursuing my degree. I teach at a small school where I am the only advanced math teacher, so we can discuss techniques in vague terms, but can’t focus on specific lessons… our shared experiences are few and far between.

    I really enjoyed your posts on the NCTM conference, since low professional development budgets and salaries made attending this year outside of my means. I have this hope that NCTM will continue and that new teachers can eventually take part, because otherwise I have to hope that we can make something work on our own, and that intimidates me.

    So far, EdCrowd looks like a great resource, and I’m looking forward to getting some work done there.

    — On the question of new teacher leaders: Are mathematicians trained to respect mastery? We revere our elders who have published and expanded mathematics, while many new teachers have not and may never publish. I feel that this, along with the first year of “faking it” while teaching, really set me up to look to be led rather than decide to start leading. What do the first three years of teaching look like right now to new math teachers?

    Why are first-time blog comments always so long? Sigh.

  11. Jason, if you’re still on this thread, how much do the StackOverflow-style reputation rankings provoke you to answer questions? Do you think that’s an effective incentive to contribute, more generally, for your average experienced teacher? I’m trying to determine to what extent StackOverflow’s success is replicable in our context here.

  12. “What do the first three years of teaching look like right now to new math teachers?”

    I can only speak personally here but when I started blogged in my third year teaching, I don’t think I had much to offer apart from stories about my own excitement, my own failure, my own learning about teaching. That was the extent of my leadership and advocacy. My first three years were all about getting my own house in order. I’m fairly certain those three years would have turned into five had I not found so many effective mentors throughout the edublogosphere.

  13. @Bill Bradley: You are spot on. K-12 education needs to move to a many-to-many mode especially for ongoing teacher development. In the schools at which I taught, few of the experienced teachers were good mentors. Most of them were only concerned with their own classrooms and had little time to give to a newbie. One could also argue that many of them had few innovative ideas to offer and even less ability to provide good input on how to use new technologies or pedagogical strategies.

    How much better would my first years have been if I could have shared what I was doing with the crowd that frequents this blog (or Sam’s or Kate’s, or…) or the twitterers who are on the mathteachers list created by @JackieB? I like the idea of modeling something after the likes of Slashdot. That sort of collegial discussion is really valuable. A repository of ideas is ok, but the discussion and the community are the real special sauces.


  14. Hi Dan,

    Great post, and I just wanted to add to the growing EdCrowd chorus here. I helped start EdCrowd ( — a StackOverflow implementation) with a number of my friends in order to work on a solution to just the problems you are describing. For those not yet initiated to StackOverflow’s approach, we made a demo video here: ( and a little humorous video here ( about the difficulties of finding good answers to questions about teaching with Google searches.

    The transformation that I can imagine good knowledge sharing tools bringing to education is the shift from teachers prioritizing finding solutions to the four or five biggest problems in their classroom (which is as much as one individual can handle) to looking everywhere for issues that could be improved now that the solutions can be crowd-sourced.

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the site. You can reach us at