This Isn’t Just About Academic Disagreement; It’s About Bullying

How should we teach math in American schools?

That’s a simple question with no easy answer.

Some say memorization and constant drilling is the key. (e.g. Memorize the times table, learn the FOIL method in algebra, do the shortcut to calculating a derivative in Calculus, figure out how to multiply fractions and then do the same kind of problem 213781 times, etc.) I’m sure a lot of you learned math that way. I did for a good part of my education, too.

Others say that method only leads to students who think they can do math but who don’t really understand it. They might be able to pass a class but they can’t do any sort of higher-level thinking. They go “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

This group’s alternative suggestion is very popular in the math world right now. It’s the basis of the Common Core curriculum (PDF) many states are now adapting. It’s a theory that says kids are better off working on a couple of long problems than several short ones. It’s a theory that tries to get kids to stop asking, “When are we ever going to use this in life?” by creating relevant problems instead of obviously contrived ones. It’s a theory that says there’s not always one right way to get an answer even if there’s only one right answer and we ought to explore several of them. It’s a theory that encourages students to talk through the methods they used to solve a problem with their classmates to get a better understanding of the subject.

(You can take a wild guess as to which theory I support.)

This is also the theory espoused by Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor and researcher of mathematics education at Stanford University and the author of the excellent book What’s Math Got to Do with It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject:

Jo Boaler

Boaler has spent years researching what works and what doesn’t in math classrooms, in America and abroad. She has published many peer-reviewed papers on the subjects of gender and racial equality when it comes to math education. She’s well respected in the field.

And she’s the subject of harassment in the academic community.

This goes well beyond disagreements with her ideas. We’re talking about people trying to destroy her academic credentials because they don’t like what she represents: A threat to the old way of doing things.

Boaler revealed the depths of the bullying on her website today:

Since joining the faculty of Stanford University in 1998 I have experienced fierce personal and professional attacks from two mathematicians — James Milgram (Stanford, retired) and Wayne Bishop (CSU, Northridge). Milgram and Bishop are opposed to reforms of mathematics teaching and support the continuation of a model in which students learn mathematics without engaging in realistic problems or discussing mathematical methods. They are, of course, entitled to this opinion, and there has been an ongoing, spirited academic debate about mathematics learning for a number of years. But Milgram and Bishop have gone beyond the bounds of reasoned discourse in a campaign to systematically suppress empirical evidence that contradicts their stance. Academic disagreement is an inevitable consequence of academic freedom, and I welcome it. However, responsible disagreement and academic bullying are not the same thing. Milgram and Bishop have engaged in a range of tactics to discredit me and damage my work which I have now decided to make public.

What sort of things are Milgram and Bishop doing? They tried to block her from becoming a professor at the school in 2010. They’re saying that she fabricated some of her research, a claim that was investigated and found to be untrue. They all-but-spelled out some of her research subjects — students and teachers and their schools — despite the fact that confidentiality is of the utmost importance in these studies. They wrote a paper (PDF) (that was never peer-reviewed or published) in order to discredit her work.

Again, Stanford officials looked at their claims years ago and found them to be utterly baseless. Yet, they persist on spreading the rumors, anyway.

Who knew character assassination was the way researchers hammered out their differences? And at such a great school, no less?! It’d be shocking if it weren’t so sad.

For now, there’s been no response from Milgram or Bishop. But I hope Boaler comes out of this unscathed, able to continue her important research without the distraction of “colleagues” hellbent on discrediting her work. Like all good researchers, she’s up for a spirited debate on the issues and seems more than willing to engage her detractors. What she’s having to respond to, though, is an attack on her character instead of her theories. That type of defamation has no place in academia.

(via Dan Meyer)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Don Gwinn

    Was it Kissinger who hypothesized that the reason academic disputes over power were so vicious was that there’s so little at stake?

    (Note:  I Googled it, and apparently it wasn’t.  So I learned another new thing today.  Apparently that was Sayre.)

  • welltheydo

    The US actually does great in math and science scores – if one breaks down the scores by [demarcation method redacted due to being very politically incorrect]. 

    Two subgroups of American children score 2nd and 7th in the world.  All this hand-wringing about “better and improved education” is merely justification for more bureaucrats in non-profits, academia, and government. 

  • Glasofruix

      The US actually does great in math and science scores


  • Brownds

    I do not know how you should teach math.  At the end of the day the necessary life skills that needed are knowing your times tables up to 12 x 12 and be able to add and subtract numbers in your head.  If you can not do either of theses basic skills you will never get the correct change at a store.

  • PersephoneK

    Simply not true.  Sorry.

  • ChristinaTrin

    There are two types of people in the world- those who seek out and accept change, and those who defend tradition until it benefits no one.

  • Dglas26

    Well. one could try telling students why math is important…

    Sorry, was that too radical an idea?

  • Silo Mowbray

    A mentor said something similar to me: “The smaller the stakes, the more vicious the in-fighting.”

    Consider a strata council, for example.

  • Silo Mowbray

    Citation fucking needed. I’d wager that if you put your “2nd and 7th in the world” up against an average Japanese or Chinese class of similar grade level thy clock will be summarily cleaned.

  • asonge

    There’s a saying from Max Planck “Science advances one funeral at a time.” I guess math might too.

  • Silo Mowbray

    I could do that in 10 minutes. I work in marketing and business development. Anyone who wants a career in business had better become competent with numbers, or you’re screwed.

  • Revyloution

    Interesting topic,  thanks for bringing up Hemant.

    I’ve always wondered your position on another of the big math debate questions:
    Do you think that numbers are real things, independent of conscious minds,  or are numbers and abstract invention we’ve used to try and understand reality?

  • Heidi

    I don’t know about the new way, but the old way sure didn’t teach me a hell of a lot of math. But whether her approach is right or wrong, those two men suck.

  • TiltedHorizon

    If you concatenated the 2 & 7 it would have been more believable.

  • Sailor

     Like 24th or something?
    If you re going to give figures give references

    Sure the kids of the 1% may be 2nd or 7th or whatever, but that does not make you a math-literate nation

  • Marco C

    Let me guess, you arrive at the representative subgroup by eliminating minorities and including mostly well to do white areas (plus a smattering of middle class asians).
    Then you compare their results to the average of this and that country assuming that those countries are homogeneous and do not have underperforming subgroups. 

    How am I doing so far?

    For that matter, why don’t we just pick 2 champions like they did in the Iliad and let them fight and we see who’s best? 
    The whole idea is to improve the scores across the board and certainly not compare one of our subgroups against their average and state we don’t have a problem.

  • Hemant Mehta

    Abstract invention — a theory to understand the world :)

  • Karen L

     I suspect that this post is referring to the effect of poverty on test scores, though the O.P. implies (I think) that the effect is based on race (which would explain the “redaction”. 

    The US has much higher rates of poverty than the schools whose students score better on tests than US students.  A study which tried to tease out this effect found that, if you only looked at schools with 10% or less poverty, the student performance overall is no. 1 in the world.  Students in schools with 10 – 25% poverty are in 3rd place worldwide based on test scores.
    See here for more:

    So it’s not that US education sucks, overall.  It’s that we have a very unequal system, and that poverty has a huge effect on educational achievement.  And even waiting until kindergarten to help is probably too late, as learning from birth to 3 is so important (and so unequal in our country).

    schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced
    lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at
    No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai,
    China which topped the ranking with a score of 556. Of all the
    nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the
    largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest
    nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New
    Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours. U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world. U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland. U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.

    schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced
    lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at
    No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai,
    China which topped the ranking with a score of 556. Of all the
    nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the
    largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest
    nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New
    Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours. U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world. U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland. U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.

  • Karen L

     Sorry about the extra junk in the comment.  It was supposed to end after the comment about ‘birth to 3 years old’. 

    I’d tried to copy something in and it didn’t show up in the comment box, but apparently stuff did get copied!

  • Revyloution

    Cool, glad to know you’re in my camp :)

  • MV

     Actually, you do get these results by removing lower socioeconomic groups from the US data.  In doing so you get a more accurate comparison between countries. 

    Unfortunately, poverty is destiny to a large degree.  Those countries that do a better job eliminating it are going to do better.  Or if they don’t test those students they will look better.

    If you don’t like this, then you need to push to fix the core problem: inequality. Not education.

  • Karen L

    This seems somewhat similar to the strident disagreements about reading instruction (whole language vs. phonics).  Though I think that situation is somewhat different as some children seem to learn better with whole language and some with phonics.

    There seem to be some folks who stridently oppose new ideas in teaching.  And particularly among the conservative Christian community it’s practically an article of faith that phonics  and ‘old-fashioned’ math instruction are the only correct approach (remember the fuss in Christian textbooks about set theory?).  It’s almost like they see it as a moral issue. 

  • welltheydo

    Fine, I’ll just come right out and say it – it’s about race.  (Nothing to do with economics as racial groups are given tests uniformly.)

    If you break down the scores by racial group, Asian-Americans score better than every country other than China.  White Americans score 7th in the world, behind China, Asian-Americans, Korea, Finland, and Singapore (China has two scores). 

    [Data from PISA international standardized test:  I'll refrain from linking to the blogger who looked into the data more closely, which is where I got the racial data.]

  • Stephen Cameron

    Well, I have nothing to back up my opinion except gut feeiing, so, it’s basically worthless, but I think that it’s not “either/or”.   I think for example, memorizing the times tables is worth it, FOIL, and other mnemonic tricks are worth it, but not to the exclusion of understanding what’s behind these things.   There are idioms in mathematics, and it’s worth it to learn the idioms, rather than to derive them from first principles every time, though it’s nice to be able to derive them from first principles if need be, or just for one’s own understanding.   Seems like it should be “both”, not “one or the other.”

    But, I’m not a teacher, so what the hell do I know about it?  Nothing, that’s what.

  • M J Shepherd

    Yay abstracts!

  • Tom S

    Ooooh, as a Platonist about numbers I soooo want to discuss this…not the time or place, not the time or place…  :)

  • pRinzler

    One of my favorite sayings.  And I’m a professor.

    I checked at Stanford’s web site, and at least Boaler has tenure, and should be able to withstand these attacks enough to keep her job.

  • Patterrssonn

    Likely they do, but Boaler’s approach is to show why math is important. Probably a lot more effective.

  • julie

    It’s not about race, it’s about opportunity.
    Do you really think that once slavery was ended, black people were suddenly able to go to any school they wanted and get any well-paying job they wanted? You expect a group of people that had no education and we’re considered to be not completely human to do just as well as the group of people who had previously owned them?Someone who’s born into a poor family has much less opportunity than someone born into a rich family. They are less likely to receive a good education, go to college, or have a well-paying job. They are likely to have kids before they are ready and their kids will be born into poverty and have the same lack of education and lack of opportunity.It’s really fucking difficult to get out of that cycle. Stop making assumptions about people.

  • Erp

     She got tenure in 2000 and full professor status in 2006 (the 2010 thing seems to be because she left Stanford due to the harassment for the University of Sussex and then came back at a School of Education invitation).    Milgram is a professor emeritus (2006) in the Mathematics department.

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Just since you picked a “favorite” example that I explained to four algebra 2 classes in Detroit on Friday as an utter waste of time, let me explain why FOIL is worthless. It is a mnemonic for remembering how to multiply 2 binomials (e.g., (x+7)(3x-1). It tells you, IF you can recall the meaning – always a bad sign with a mnemonic if the meaning isn’t completely transparent – to multiply the “first” terms (e.g., x*3x) then the “outer” terms (e.g., x*(-1)), then the “inner” terms (e.g., 7* 3x) and finally the “last” terms (e.g., 7*(-1)). 

    But all you need to know is the distributive property of multiplication over addition, which says “multiply every term in the first factor by every term in the second factor”: that’s not dependent upon how MANY terms there are (or, frankly, on how many factors, since we generally do this two factors at a time). No mnemonic. And what happens if – shockingly! – you have to do, say, (2x+1)(3x^2 – 2x + 6). That’s a binomial times a trinomial? 

    Use FOIL on that? You can’t. Too many terms in the first factor. Game over. 

    So WHY would you waste time teaching or trying to learn a mnemonic that works in only one case? The answer should be: you don’t. 

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg

    That’s strictly a philosophical debate. It has had no impact to speak of on the teaching of K-12 mathematics and not all that much beyond that until you get into the VERY esoteric realm of philosophy of mathematics. There was a time, about 100 years or so, when that was hot stuff in a very small circle. Not so much these days. 

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg

    You might want to control for economic factors. There’s a bit more going on than “race,” a nonsensical notion that is a lot more imaginary than those complex numbers mentioned above. 

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg

    You’re free to “bet” all you want. When you are actually putting up money, let me know. 

  • pRinzler

    That’s a real shame.

  • Renshia

    Interesting. I just can’t help but wonder, why. Why do they feel the need to do this? What gain? I wonder, do they feel that if a new way to teach math is created, it invalidates their whole careers? Does it make them feel inferior that they didn’t come up with the idea themselves?

    I just don’t understand.

  • TheG

    Which is a nice way to explain why black people don’t perform as well academically.  It doesn’t explain why Asians do better in America academically.  They started off just as disadvantaged (a fact largely ignored in this kind of discussion) as many other races, including black people.
    I think it has more to do with culture within a race.  Asians do better than white or black students because they have a different value set within their culture.  It is evident in other minority cultures as well.

  • The Captain

    Now i know we really have to have a few beers together since I got this crazy idea that our number system is incorrect, but it only makes sense after 6 beers and in person :)

  • Drew M.

    “If you can not do either of theses basic skills you will never get the correct change at a store.”

    Indeed. Retail clerks all have psychic powers and check to make sure you can perform arithmetic before ringing up your purchase. Upon finding a poor schmuck who cannot, they hit a secret switch on their register that causes it to display a short amount of change. Thus, cheating the poor customer who is none the wiser.

  • julie

    Yes, they did start out disadvantaged, but they weren’t enslaved when they first came here. They kept a lot more of their culture and values. They may have been poor at first, but they definitely had more options than black people. And if you’re culture values hard work and education and drills that into you, it is easier to break out of poverty.

    Black people were brought here forcefully from many different parts of Africa and weren’t freed till hundreds of years later. They completely lost their culture(s). Many generations of slaves learned how best to live with their situation, not how to live in a free world. Even when they were freed, it was incredibly difficult for them to find work, so they remained poor, and people who are born poor often stay poor.

  • C Peterson

    Don’t confuse math and arithmetic. You need the latter for basic life skills; you need the former for so much more.

  • Jessica

    Have you seen these Life of Fred math books?

    They are a wildly different approach to teaching math. A whole lot of fun and fascinating as well.

  • gandalfe

    And we all know that a career in business is EXACTLY what turns kids on these days… hell, any days.

  • Grittonsci

    I love common core. As a High school science teacher, when you say you graduated high school, no matter where you did, there are certain expectations on what you know, what that diploma means. Go common core!

  • Tom S

    I have to disagree with just about everything in your comment, Michael.  :)  The only reason any part of philosophy is considered esoteric is because we fail to teach it, to kids in particular.  (This is a serious mistake!)   The number of people involved in phil of math is much larger than it was a century ago.  And fundamental assumptions about things like math and numbers and the other things philosophers spend their time on are always – always – relevant to teaching, from preschool to adult enrichment courses.  My sense is that the “esoteric/irrelevant” attitude that is so common is just a result of ignorance about philosophy.  

  • Tom S

    Like most discussions about race and educational performance, your comment contains a false generalization: you say “black people don’t perform as well academically.”  You may have meant “generally speaking” or something less than the absolute claim you made.  Even there, there is a false assumption that shows a certain amount of intellectual laziness, and borders on racism: that all “Black” people are the same.  It strikes me as embodying a kind of racism, in fact, although I am sure you intended no such thing.  Race is a social construct, and is useless in this sort of analysis.  One piece of evidence, among many: people identified by the culture as African-American who have ancestors who were slaves or who lived during that period do much more poorly than people identified as “Black” who come to study from Africa.   Race doesn’t exist, and even if it did it couldn’t be the problem here b/c it doesn’t correlate to actual real data concerning success. 

  • Felicia Darling

    Being a first-generation college student, I have a passion
    for improving educational access for all students. I have made a career
    of teaching mathematics to socioeconomically disadvantaged students for over
    two decades. However, while I was completing my Masters Degree twenty years
    ago, I was harassed by a few old-guard mathematics professors because my
    research challenged the way “we had always taught developmental math”. I
    suffered great emotional and financial strain as a result. At the time, few in
    my department had the courage to stand up to these professors—or for me. Today,
    I am a blossoming researcher in Stanford’s Doctoral Program in Mathematics
    Education, and it is with some measure of trepidation that I write this letter,
    but I feel ethically bound speak out for the rights of all competent
    educational researchers to pursue rigorous educational research that advantages
    all students without fear of retribution.

                Having been
    a teacher, I am painfully aware of the emerging trend of villainizing public
    school teachers for political gain. However, even more disturbing is that many educational
    researchers who conduct research that challenges the status quo endure
    harassment, as well. Dr. Jo Boaler, for example, has been systematically
    persecuted for her research around inquiry mathematics. Dr. Boaler, a
    full professor in Stanford’s School of Education, is well respected in both the
    U.S. and the U.K. for her work with education reforms that promote universal
    access to math curriculum. Unfortunately, she has been targeted because her
    findings about math learning in urban schools challenge the old “drill-and-practice”
    model of teaching. She found that students who engage
    actively in their mathematics learning, rather than simply practicing
    procedures, achieve at higher levels.  Of
    course, the field of educational research needs gatekeepers of the traditional
    ways of teaching to rigorously scrutinize and challenge new findings in the
    field, but Dr. Boaler’s research findings have already withstood the test of
    intense scholarly scrutiny. Despite the robustness of her research, a small
    cadre of harassers goes well beyond the bounds of intellectual disagreement and
    into the realm of character defamation to make their point. Using words like
    “fraud” and “cherry-picking” to describe Dr. Boaler and her research crosses
    the line between intellectual banter and academic bullying. Furthermore, using
    derogatory terms like “pickaninny” to discredit a researcher is totally
    inappropriate in academia.  

                Whether we
    are talking about classroom teachers whose vocation is under attack by some
    political groups or educational researchers being victimized for their research
    findings, we need to stand by competent researchers whose findings have been
    shown to be valid. We need to differentiate between academic debate and
    character assassination, and stand up and say, “No” to the latter. “There
    may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never
    be a time when we fail to protest.” Elie Wiesel


  • Guest

    Oh boo-boo. I love academia and have a few fancy letters behind my name, but this is such a non story it makes the head spin. 

    Also Hemant, you are a math teacher correct? I have done some calculations based on how prolific you are during a typical school day. You average four posts per day, during schol hours. How can you justify this? This seems like an egregious waste of the school’s time and money as well as you not dedicating yourself to your students as you should. Should you not be posting all this during your time AWAY from the school?

    Seems to me someone should drop a dime and complain about your utter lack of respect and time wasting skills to the school board. This same school board that is considering striking.

  • Ahh DUUUUuuuuYYYYY

    And did you go to American Public School then?

  • Hemant Mehta

    I write things the night before and schedule posts in advance so that I can focus on my work during the school day.

    We’re not striking. I don’t live in the city.

    Do your research before making wild accusations.

  • Will Chain

    I’m surprised that no one from the “what does this have to do with atheism” crowd have whined so far. If this article was about woman’s issues no doubt they would be around…

  • coyotenose

     Well, somebody’s desperate for talking points to change the subject. And what’s triggering that desperation? Surprise, surprise, it’s your poor privileged ears hearing about a woman being harassed for years.

  • Russian Alex

     So true for so many things…

  • The Captain

    I hope you didn’t make that post from work. Unlike Hemant though you get to have anonymity in you internet activity, yet I find I wish I knew your employe to inform them of the times of your postings and see how they feel about it. Wouldn’t want to hold hemant to a standard you are exempt from.

  • The Captain

    Just when everyone was getting along you had to take the opportunity to show what a condescending ass your little A+ crowed is to those not in your little clique.

  • Marty Green

    Great article. I can’t help telling you about my own fight with the University of Winnipeg, where I was recently expelled from the Teacher Certification program for promoting a different philosophy of teaching. You can read about it on my blog

    I have posted some more examples of what’s wrong with math teaching on my physics blog at

  • JRB

     I think the situation might be more a like then you think. 

    My wife is a teacher/administrator at a K-12 private* school that emphasizes traditional teaching methods:  straight rows, chalk boards, raise your hand to ask a question, stand when called on,  homework from grade 1 on, emphasis on rote memorization until grade 6, no group work for marked assignments until grade 9, etc.

    And even though her job depends on good enrollment, she’ll be the first to tell you that some otherwise bright children are not cut out for this system.  She’ll probably also mention that some kids who have struggled in the more “modern” public school system make amazing turn arounds and are able to go from barely passing to winning scholarships when brought into this more “traditional” program.

    Which I guess is a long way to say that different kids respond in different ways to different education strategies. And therefore my (minimally educated opinion) is that the emphasis shouldn’t be on finding the one “right way” to teach children but should instead focus on offering a spectrum of education strategies to allow parents the opportunity to choose the one that works best for their child.

    *While the words “private school” may invoke images of personal stables and private golf courses, my wife’s school has the lowest admission fees of any private school in the city and includes a diverse student body where the parents run the gamut from doctors and dentists to convenience store clerks and taxi drivers.

  • CultOfReason

    It’s been my observations that academic achievement has less to do with race and more to do with socio-economic status.  When comparing achievement across races but within the same socio-economic levels, things tend to even out quite a bit.

    That said, there may be some influence cultural values within races play on academic achievement (eg. asian americans score higher), but this speaks more to cultural influence than individuals’ capabilities.

  • Will Chain

    Except I’m not a member of A+ and neither want to be one. I just felt it was someones duty to point out the hypocrisy of those who love to pull the “this has nothing to do with atheism” card whenever someone writes about woman’s issues on this blog.

    Of course, you’ll have to make the assumption that I’m telling the truth about not being a member of A+. But, considering your last response to me, you seem to have no problem with making assumptions.

  • Phasespace

    Actually, it isn’t all that certain that you would win your bet.  If you start digging into the demographic information on the students that were involved exams like the TIMSS study, you quickly realize that the average Japanese and/or Chinese students never took the exams, only their best students did.  

    We don’t really know how an average student in Japan or China would perform on these international comparisons.  I don’t have a full citation of this because I saw this presented in a talk given by one of the people heading up the TIMSS study several years ago, but at a minimum, it gives us a strong reason to question the conclusion that US public schools are really as far behind as some of these international studies make it appear.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our problems.  We certainly do, and we need to continue to work on them.

  • Education Realist

    Controlling for economic factors, poor whites do better than non-poor blacks in every metric imaginable.

  • JDE

    There are two sides to every story, though. From Wayne Bishop’s telling [], Jo Boaler is the one who sicced the Stanford police on him by falsely claiming that he was a “terrorist,” and then she tried to get his university’s ethics committee to censure him for saying that her research needed to be verified.

  • JDE

    You might be interested in Wayne Bishop’s two new responses to Boaler, first on the merits of her work and second on her allegations: