Stanford’s Jo Boaler Discusses Her New Book ‘MATH-ish’ and Takes On Her Critics

Yet, from Boaler’s perspective, too many students feel like failures in math class and hate the subject. That leaves us with millions of Americans who are innumerate. Nearly 2 out of every 5 eighth graders don’t even have the most basic math skills, according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15-year-olds rank toward the bottom of economically advanced nations in math achievement. 

Boaler draws upon a different body of research about student motivation that looks at the root causes of why students don’t like math based on surveys and interviews. Students who are tracked into low-level classes feel discouraged. Struggling math students often describe feelings of anxiety from timed tests. Many students express frustration that math is just a collection of meaningless procedures. 

Boaler seeks to fix these root causes. She advocates for ending tracking by ability in math classes, getting rid of timed tests and starting with conceptual understanding before introducing procedures. Most importantly, she wants to elevate the work that students tackle in math classes with more interesting questions that spark genuine curiosity and encourage students to think and wonder. Her goal is to expose students to the beauty of mathematical thinking as mathematicians enjoy the subject. Whether students actually learn more math the Boaler way is where this dispute centers. In other words, how strong is the evidence base?

The latest battle over Boaler’s work began with an anonymous complaint published in March by the Washington Free Beacon, the same conservative website that first surfaced plagiarism accusations against Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University. The complaint accuses Boaler of a “reckless disregard for accuracy” by misrepresenting research citations 52 times and asks Stanford to discipline Boaler, a full professor with an endowed chair. Stanford has said it’s reviewing the complaint and hasn’t decided whether to open an investigation, according to news reports. Boaler stands by her research (other than one citation that she says has been fixed) and calls the anonymous complaint “bogus.” 

“They haven’t even got the courage to put their name on accusations like this,” Boaler said. “That tells us something.”

Boaler first drew fire from critics in 2005, when she presented new research claiming that students at a low-income school who were behind grade level had outperformed students at higher achieving schools when they were taught in classrooms that combined students of different math achievement levels. The supposed secret sauce was an unusual curriculum that emphasized group work and de-emphasized lectures. Critics disparaged the findings and hounded her to release her data. Math professors at Stanford and Cal State University re-crunched the numbers and declared they’d found the opposite result.

Boaler, who is originally from England, retreated to an academic post back in the U.K., but returned to Stanford in 2010 with a fighting spirit. She had written a book, “What’s Math Got to Do with It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject,” which explained to a general audience why challenging, open-ended problems would help more children to embrace math and how the current approach of boring drills and formulas was turning too many kids off. Teachers loved it.

Boaler accused her earlier critics of academic bullying and harassment. But she didn’t address their legitimate research questions. Instead, she focused on changing classrooms. Tens of thousands of teachers and parents flocked to her 2013 online course on how to teach math. Building on this new fan base, she founded a nonprofit organization at Stanford called youcubed to train teachers, conduct research and spread her gospel. Boaler says a half million teachers now visit youcubed’s website each month.

Boaler also saw math as a lever to promote social justice. She lamented that too many low-income Black and Hispanic children were stuck in discouraging, low-level math classes. She advocated for change. In 2014, San Francisco heeded that call, mixing different achievement levels in middle school classrooms and delaying algebra until ninth grade. Parents, especially in the city’s large Asian community, protested that delaying algebra was holding their children back. Without starting algebra in middle school, it was difficult to progress to high school calculus, an important course for college applications. Parents blamed Boaler, who applauded San Francisco for getting math right. Ten years later, the city is slated to reinstate algebra for eighth graders this fall. Boaler denies any involvement in the unpopular San Francisco reforms.

Before that math experiment unraveled in San Francisco, California education policymakers tapped Boaler to be one of the lead writers of a new math framework, which would guide math instruction throughout the state. The first draft discouraged tracking children into separate math classes by achievement levels, and proposed delaying algebra until high school. It emphasized “social justice” and suggested that students could take data science instead of advanced algebra in high school. Traditional math proponents worried that the document would water down math instruction in California, hinder advanced students and make it harder to pursue STEM careers. And they were concerned that California’s proposed reforms could spread across the nation. 

In the battle to quash the framework, critics attacked Boaler for trying to institute “woke” mathematics. The battle became personal, with some criticizing her $5,000-an-hour consulting and speaking fees at public schools while sending her own children to private school. 

Critics also dug into the weeds of the framework document, which is how this also became a research story. A Stanford mathematics professor catalogued a list of what he saw as research misrepresentations. Those citations, together with additional characterizations of research findings throughout Boaler’s writings, eventually grew into the anonymous complaint that’s now at Stanford.

By the time the most recent complaint against Boaler was lodged, the framework had already been revised in substantial ways. Boaler’s critics had arguably won their main policy battles. College-bound students still need the traditional course sequence and cannot substitute data science for advanced algebra. California’s middle schools will continue to have the option to track children into separate classes and start algebra in eighth grade. 

But the attacks on Boaler continue. In addition to seeking sanctions from Stanford, her anonymous critics have asked academic journals to pull down her papers, according to Boaler. They’ve written to conference organizers to stop Boaler from speaking and, she says, they’ve told her funders to stop giving money to her. At least one, the Valhalla Foundation, the family foundation of billionaire Scott Cook (co-founder of the software giant Intuit), stopped funding youcubed in 2024. In 2022 and 2023, it gave Boaler’s organization more than $560,000. 

Boaler sees the continued salvos against her as part of the larger right-wing attack on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. She also sees a misogynistic pattern of taking down women who have power in education, such as Claudine Gay. “You’re basically hung, drawn and quartered by the court of Twitter,” she said.

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. Sometimes she cites a theory that’s been written about in an academic journal but hasn’t been proven and labels it research. While technically true – most academic writing falls under the broad category of research –  that’s not the same as evidence from a well-designed classroom experiment. And she tends not to factor in evidence that runs counter to her views or adjust her views as new studies arise. Some of her numerical claims seem grandiose. For example, she says one of her 18-lesson summer courses raised achievement by 2.8 years.

“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.”

Boaler is getting more scrutiny than her colleagues, he said, because she’s influential, has a large following of devoted teachers and has been involved in policy changes at schools. Many other scholars of math education share Boaler’s views. But Boaler has become the public face of nontraditional teaching ideas in math. And in today’s polarized political climate, that’s a dangerous public face to be.

The citation controversy reflects bigger issues with the state of education research. It’s often not as precise as the hard sciences or even social sciences like economics. Academic experts are prone to make wide, sweeping statements. And there are too few studies in real classrooms or randomized controlled trials that could settle some of the big debates. Star argues that more replication studies could improve the quality of evidence for math instruction. We can’t know which teaching methods are most effective unless the method can be reproduced in different settings with different students.

It’s also possible that more research may never settle these big math debates and we may continue to generate conflicting evidence. There’s the real possibility that traditional methods could be more effective for short-term achievement gains, while nontraditional methods might attract more students to the subject, and potentially lead to more creative problem solvers in the future. 

Even if Boaler is loose with the details of research studies, she could still be right about the big picture. Maybe advanced students would be better off slowing down on the current racetrack to calculus to learn math with more depth and breadth. Her fun, hands-on approach to math might spark just enough motivation to inspire more kids to do their homework. Might we trade off a bit of short-term math achievement for a greater good of a numerate, civic society?

In her new book, “MATH-ish,” Boaler is doubling down on her approach to math with a title that seems to encourage inexactitude. She argues that approaching a problem in a “math-ish” way gives students the freedom to take a guess and make mistakes, to step back and think rather than jumping to numerical calculations. Boaler says she’s hearing from teachers that “ish” is far more fun than making estimates.

“I’m hoping this book is going to be my salvation,” she said, “that I have something exciting to do and focus on and not focus on the thousands of abusive messages I’m getting.”

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