Math education professor accuses colleagues of harassment, persecution

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.”

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.
  • pol_incorrect

    There is nothing more entertaining than watching faculty members arguing about petty academic matters as if they were matters of life and death :D. Let’s face it, mathematical talent does exist, just as there are other talents people have. You cannot “technique” mathematical talent out of students. I find these research projects about education techniques quite useless to be honest. Without getting into the actual dispute discussed here, I believe that the NSF money she received would have been better spent in actual research in mathematics or other scientific endeavors.

  • this is serious

    Jo’s full statement is really worth a read. The behaviors and actions she describes certainly go beyond the realm of the professional. Why hasn’t Stanford investigated and/or reprimanded Milgram?
    Here are some quotes from Boaler’s site: (http://www.stanford.edu/~joboaler/)

    “In 2006 Milgram claimed that I had engaged in scientific misconduct. This is an allegation that could have destroyed my career had it been substantiated. Stanford formed a committee to assess Milgram’s allegations. After reviewing all of my NSF research data, Stanford found that Milgram’s allegations of scientific misconduct were unfounded and terminated the investigation.
    Milgram was informed that there would be no formal investigation of scientific misconduct as the Stanford inquiry found his allegations of scientific misconduct to be without merit. Having failed to convince Stanford, Milgram went public with his damaging allegations.
    Milgram and Bishop attempted aggressively to identify my research subjects – schools and students that had been promised confidentiality for their protection, consistent with fundamental research study principles. Identifying human research subjects is contrary to university policy and federal law. Yet Bishop contacted numerous school district officials, including principals, and pressured them to disclose whether they were subjects of my study. Among other tactics, he threatened to take legal action against them.
    Two of the people concerned contacted Stanford University and sent details of Bishop’s communication with them. In letters to Stanford they stated that Bishop had been “unprofessional, demanding, condescending, dishonest” and “verbally aggressive”.
    In 2006 Milgram and Bishop posted a “paper” on Milgram’s website in which they claimed that they had identified the schools in my study. They specifically asserted that they “were able to determine the identities of these schools”. The “paper” presented information from which schools, teachers and students in my study could easily be identified. The “paper” went on to attack the schools and students, (eg “The Railside students show that they do not have a good understanding of mathematics”). The “paper” also attacked my integrity as a researcher, claiming for example, that different populations of students were studied at the different schools – a false assertion at the core of the allegations of scientific misconduct that Stanford found to be baseless.
    Milgram and Bishop’s “paper” contravenes federal law that protects the human subjects of research as it identifies schools, teachers and students. Its identification of individual students breaches the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The “paper” has never been peer reviewed, and no journal has accepted it for publication.”

  • pol_incorrect
  • http://www.facebook.com/marshall.watkins Marshall Watkins

    The link in the article should work for that now too

  • pol_incorrect

    Thank you for bringing this to the Stanford community’s attention. Apparently this issue had been the subject of heated discussions in internet boards. In this one http://mathforum.org/kb/thread.jspa?threadID=2408669 Bishop himself addresses Boaler’s complains. Very entertaining. You know, this might be a consequence of having job security for life :D.

  • http://www.facebook.com/haberstr John Haberstroh

    Seems like a reasonable request (Milgram & Bishop): “If we are to reverse the woeful performance of our students it seems crucial that K-12 education research be subject to the same high standards as are the norm in medicine and the sciences. As a key step we believe that the analysis here shows the dangers of accepting the legitimacy of articles such as those mentioned above as long as the results cannot be independently studied and verified.”

  • lol

    lol…how is Dr Jo’s research so controversial? sounds like common sense to me: different students have different learning styles. teaching styles should thus be adapted to help students get to the same educational outcomes. and yes, it’s also true that teachers have to be well versed in the topics that they are teaching.

    okay there. why are milgram and bishop going completely bat shit crazy over these basic fundamentals of education? youd expect that their educated minds would display some decency. but i guess not!