A contentious national debate about the future of mathematics education recently became personal at Stanford, as Jo Boaler, a School of Education professor, took to the Internet to call out “harassment and persecution” by two mathematics scholars, one a Stanford faculty member emeritus.
In her post, Boaler– whose research into reforming mathematics education has won awards and received extensive funding in both the United Kingdom and the United States– wrote that critiques of her work by James Milgram, professor emeritus of math, and Wayne Bishop, professor of mathematics at California State University, Los Angeles, have moved beyond academic disputes and into the realm of personal and unethical attacks.
“Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship,” Boaler wrote, identifying a trail of grievances going back to 1999. “Milgram and Bishop have gone beyond the bounds of reasoned discourse in a campaign to systematically suppress empirical evidence that contradicts their stance.”
Boaler’s principal grievance lies with an essay co-authored by Milgram and Bishop, which claims to disprove findings from Boaler’s research indicating a significant benefit to students who receive math education based on collaborative work and real-world examples.
Boaler’s research suggests her methods are effective both generally and in terms of engaging demographic groups who statistically struggle in math.
“Students who engage more actively with math do better,” Boaler said. “They achieve at higher levels, they were more positive about math, they were able to use it better…We have a decade of research showing that’s what’s best for kids.”
Boaler also expressed concern that attempts to identify the schools used in the study in question runs afoul of federal regulations protecting the anonymity of minor research subjects, and noted that Milgram and Bishop’s paper has yet to be peer-reviewed or published.
According to Milgram, the paper was accepted for publication in an education journal, but Boaler’s 2006 departure from Stanford– she returned in 2010– removed the need to provoke further controversy.
“Many people in the education world pressured me not to actually complete the publishing process,” Milgram said in a statement to The Daily. “They argued that since Boaler had left Stanford, we had de facto ‘won.’”
While a 2006 University investigation into allegations of scientific misconduct against Boaler was terminated after finding no wrongdoing, Milgram and Bishop’s paper, “A Close Examination of Jo Boaler’s Railside Report,” remains available on a Stanford website.
“I’m curious about that,” Boaler said about the paper’s continued availability.
Milgram, meanwhile, has sustained his objections to Boaler’s work and denied any type of academic bullying, acknowledging the unsatisfactory current state of math education but arguing for an increased emphasis on educating teachers rather than the student-focused solution Boaler has advocated.
“Those of us who actually know the subject strongly believe that in order to improve outcomes we have to dramatically increase teacher knowledge of the subject, and that teachers need to more or less directly impart that knowledge to students,” Milgram wrote.
Boaler framed the decision to publish her grievances online as a means of offering supporters access to it as a resource, considering the extensive use of Milgram and Bishop’s paper in online forums as a means of discrediting her research.
“I took advice to just ignore it, but that was the wrong advice,” Boaler acknowledged, arguing that a more strident advocacy of math education reform is necessary.
“There’s a huge gap between what we know from research and what happens in most math classrooms,” she added.
According to Boaler, the reaction to her post has been extremely positive, generating supportive messages from other advocates of math education reform and drawing renewed attention to the ongoing debate.
“I’ve had hundreds of emails and tweets and Facebook postings,” Boaler said. “I got an email yesterday from a professor on the East Coast saying that this is the most significant thing that’s happened in math education in the last decade.”
Milgram said he has no plans at this time to respond to Boaler’s criticisms.
Despite the increasingly acrimonious tone of the debate, Stanford has yet to intervene in the issue, citing the primacy of academic freedom in a statement from University Spokeswoman Lisa Lapin.
“[In this case] Stanford has carefully respected the fundamental principle of academic freedom: the merits of a position are to be determined by scholarly debate, rather than by having the university arbitrate or interfere in the academic discourse.”