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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

It's 'MATH-ish' -- but is it math?

Stanford will not investigate a complaint accusing Education Professor Jo Boaler of “reckless disregard for accuracy” by misrepresenting research citations. The embattled professor claims her ideas on how to teach math are being "silenced" by right-wingers and misogynists as part of a campaign to "suppress researchers who study equity."

Boaler is fighting back with a new book, MATH-ish, writes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. The book calls for encouraging students "to take a guess and make mistakes, to step back and think rather than jumping to numerical calculations."

Traditional teaching turns students off to the wonder of math, Boaler argues. She wants students to explore math concepts rather than learning how to find right answers.

Her ideas, advanced through a Stanford-based nonprofit, youcubed, have been very influential.

In 2014, San Francisco public schools adopted Boaler's "equity" ideas, including eliminating advanced math in middle school and delaying algebra until ninth grade. She wrote that San Francisco was getting math right.

However, San Francisco Superintendent Matt Wayne declared the math curriculum “was not working,” after a Stanford study found no achievement gains for black and Hispanic students. After a voter revolt led by Chinese-American parents, the district plans to reinstate algebra for eighth graders this fall.

"Before that math experiment unraveled in San Francisco," writes Barshay, Boaler was chosen as one of the lead writers of California's new math framework, which would guide math instruction throughout the state. The first draft used San Francisco's detracking as a model, emphasized “social justice” and suggested that students could take data science instead of advanced algebra in high school.

Her critics called it “woke” mathematics, she writes. "The battle became personal, with some criticizing her for taking $5,000-an-hour consulting and speaking fees at public schools while sending her own children to private school."

Brian Conrad, a Stanford math professor, published a devastating critique of the framework, charging that it "seriously misrepresented" research to back up its assertions. "Sometimes the original papers arrive at conclusions opposite those claimed," he wrote.

Many of the research citations were dropped, and the framework was revised, writes Barshay. Boaler remained a target.

"From my perch as a journalist who covers education research, I see that Boaler has a tendency to overstate the implications of a narrow study," writes Barshay. "And she tends not to factor in evidence that runs counter to her views or adjust her views as new studies arise."

“People have raised questions for a long time about the rigor and the care in which Jo makes claims related to both her own research and others,” said Jon Star, a professor of math education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. 
But Star says many other education researchers have done exactly the same, and the “liberties” Boaler takes are common in the field. “That’s not to suggest that taking these liberties is okay,” Star said, “but she is being called out for it.”

Stephanie M. Lee reported on the challenges to Boaler's research in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Boaler "has at times misinterpreted studies and made bold assertions with scant evidence, experts say, empowering skeptics who fear that her proposals would water down math and actually undermine her goal of a more equitable education system."

Math achievement is low and getting lower across the country. I think we need reliable research on what teaching strategies are most effective.

332 views6 comments


May 08

Math-ish is to math as Velveeta is to cheese.


May 08

A broader issue would be a review of topics, skills, and abilities that people expect students to develop on their own versus what adults take direct control of developing.

As an example, a common comment when discussing science fairs is most people look down upon any parental help as if high school students can teach themselves non-parametric statistics and randomization experiment design. Compare that to parents spending money on coaching, travel teams, and summer camps to help their children develop the ability to be a baseball/softball pitcher or a football quarterback or kicker.

One needs to ask people such as Dr Boaler why people pay for music lessons, sporting coaching, and drawing classes while expecting students to figure out trigonometry/statistics/calculus…


Bill Parker
Bill Parker
May 08

Joanne, if Professor Boaler (what a joke, I know) cannot handle the fact that the mindless drivel

she attempts to peddle as math education, perhaps she should get a clue by 16 and leave math

education to people who actually know how to do mathematics...

I wish people would remember that the next time they drive over a bridge that it was designed

and built by engineers and mathematics experts...



Darren Miller
Darren Miller
May 07

At best she's a true believer in a philosophy that doesn't work. At worst, she's a charlatan and perhaps a liar.

Joanne Jacobs
Joanne Jacobs
May 08
Replying to

I think she is a true believer. She takes criticism very badly.

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