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NCSM Case Study: A Stronger Network Through a Diverse Board



Background

NCSM is a mathematics education leadership organization that equips and empowers a diverse education community to engage in leadership that supports, sustains, and inspires high quality mathematics teaching and learning every day for each and every learner. NCSM (which used to stand for the National Council for Supervisors of Mathematics but is no longer an acronym) organizes an annual conference, creates networking opportunities, and provides resources for members to support high quality math teaching and learning. Today, the network is made up of about 2,700 members including classroom teachers, curriculum directors, instructional coaches, district administrators, school board members, and others who influence math education. NCSM joined the community of practice with a goal of diversifying its membership and board so it can better fulfill its mission of reaching every learner. 


Diversifying the Board

Over the years, the NCSM board became increasingly aware of the lack of diversity in the network’s membership and board of directors. For several years, the board had conversations to strengthen its understanding of equity, social justice, and the systemic exclusion of people with marginalized identities from leadership in STEM. When discussing diversity, the board arrived at an understanding that “diversity” means a range of lived experience across race, ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, urban/suburban/rural, and other factors that impact people’s experiences. The NCSM board of directors believes a rich mixture of lived experiences will lead the board to better actions and decisions. 


The 35-member board is made up of members elected by the network, who are the voting members, as well as members appointed by the board president. They had made progress in increasing diversity among appointed board members because the board president shared the organization's commitment to diversity. As for elected members, the board worked to influence the network by fostering leadership among historically excluded people in the network – making the case for why they should get involved, providing education on how to get involved, and encouraging people to seek leadership on the board even if they didn’t hold a formal leadership role within their education systems. “If you’re making a difference in math education, you’re a leader,” said Katey Arrington, NCSM president. Then in 2022, despite the board’s efforts to support a diverse set of nominees, the network elected an all-white group to serve as elected board members. Their efforts to increase diversity and leadership capacity in the network hadn’t led to more diversity among elected board members. “We asked, ‘What are we doing wrong? What are the hidden barriers? What are we not doing that we think we’re doing?’” said Paul Gray, who was NCSM president at the time. This moment served as an awakening for the board and created a sense of urgency for the work that began shortly thereafter with the community of practice. The community of practice provided the time, resources, tools, and connections for NCSM to shift into high gear and experiment with and implement new ideas. It also “gave us the tools and vocabulary necessary to articulate our inclination toward equity and representation to others in our network and make the case for why it's important to build that diversity,” Paul said.


Focus Groups

First, the board wanted to spend time listening to the types of people they were trying to attract to the network and leadership positions within it. They led a series of focus groups with members and nonmembers alike. With support from Results Lab from the community of practice, who helped NCSM develop the protocol for the focus groups, they asked a range of questions like: What are the membership networks you’re excited to be part of? What do you find attractive or inspiring about them? Where do you get professional growth? What do you dislike or what’s missing in the networks you’re part of? If you’re part of NCSM, what do you like and dislike? Where do you see potential for NCSM? One thing they heard was that, particularly for potential and emergent leaders, the local or regional level offers more personal connections than a national-level organization, which increases their likelihood of engagement. This led NCSM to focus on helping strengthen network affiliates and foster leadership among affiliates. For example, during their 2023 conference, NCSM hosted a pre-conference session with leaders of affiliate organizations to discuss how the national board can better support affiliates. 


Diversifying the Elected Board

In addition to understanding how it might foster connections to diverse leadership on local and regional levels, the organization also looked at its board nomination process to see how it might support a more diverse board. NCSM uses a rubric to determine which nominees will be on the ballot for elected board positions. The board realized the rubric didn’t reflect the things they wanted to prioritize and, as a result, was resulting in a homogeneous slate of candidates for network members to vote for. So they changed the nominations rubric to be more inclusive of different lived experiences and people with experience working in a variety of communities. Then they shared the rubric with all nominees so they could see how they would be evaluated and the characteristics successful NCSM board members have. In the 2023 board election, 25% of the candidates on the ballot were people of color.


Mirrors & Windows Conference

NCSM also saw its events – mainly its annual in-person conference – as an opportunity to deepen its commitment to diversity. In 2023, the organization hosted its second in-person conference since COVID began. The board coalesced around a new goal for this conference: create an environment where people from different backgrounds gather together and tell their stories. They chose the theme “Mirrors and Windows” to emphasize this: some participants’ stories would provide mirrors to reflect your own experiences, and others would offer windows into different experiences, building on the scholarship of Rudine Sims Bishop. This focus, they believed, would support their mission by helping participants strengthen their cultural competency, their understanding of students’ different identities and experiences, their understanding of colleagues’ experiences, and their ability to better support and advocate for students and contribute to equitable outcomes. The board solicited session proposals that emphasized storytelling. They approached people across a variety of lived experiences and encouraged them to submit proposals. They invited Black speakers to give the keynote and closing speeches. 


Formally and informally, they got feedback that this conference achieved its goal. Across the 1,600 participants, there was much more visible diversity (e.g., racial) in both participants and speakers. “It was an environment where people would see people who looked like them onstage, in panels, in sessions, and walking around,” Katey said. Responses to the feedback forms showed appreciation for the opportunity to see people like themselves and different from themselves in presentations across the conference. One participant said, “I was able to see ME as a black woman in mathematics education throughout the conference in many facets.” When talking with a board member, one Black woman participant said this was the first NCSM conference where she felt like she belonged. As well, participants expressed appreciation for the inclusion of new and younger voices in the program. One attendee commented, “I also appreciated the 'stories yet to be told' strand. Hearing young, emerging leaders was really motivating, thought provoking and inspiring.” 


Paths Forward: Key Considerations and Advice

For other networks trying to diversify their membership and board, NCSM’s experience offers several lessons. 

  • Balance listening and taking action. It is critical to take time to understand what’s at the root of the network’s lack of diversity and listen deeply to the people you want engaged in your work. But at the same time, don’t let this prevent you from taking action. “There’s always something to be learned,” Paul said. “Do the things you know are right, and keep thinking. It won’t be perfect, but do the very best you can.”

  • Be overt in your goals. NCSM included straightforward language on their website and in calls for board nominees, saying they were looking for a diverse set of candidates. They shared the updated rubric that was more inclusive of people with different lived experiences. And they talked explicitly with network members across a variety of backgrounds and experiences about their desire to foster their leadership. 

  • Use failures to shift your mindset and tactics. When an all-white group was elected to the board in 2022, NCSM could have developed a sense of hopelessness in its efforts. Instead, the moment created a mindset shift and catalyzed the board to change its tactics. “We realized, if this isn’t working, we need to do something different immediately,” Katey said. The next election was much more representative.


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