California math matters: Stanford looks into complaints on professor Jo Boaler

An anonymous complaint filed with Stanford on March 20 accused math education professor Jo Boaler of engaging in “reckless disregard for accuracy” in both her individual work and her work on the recently revised California Math Framework (CMF). 

According to Boaler, the University started to evaluate the complaint but has not opened a formal investigation.

“Stanford takes such allegations seriously and considers them accordingly. The first step is to determine if the matter is one properly resolved in scholarly debate rather than through a formal university process,” wrote University spokesperson Luisa Rapport. Rapport declined to comment on the specific case due to University policies.

The 100–page complaint details 52 instances of alleged citation misrepresentation in Boaler’s work, both in the CMF and her research. It asks the University to investigate the allegations and, if confirmed, “take appropriate disciplinary action.”

The complaint comes amid a wave of critiques about the way math is taught in middle and high schools across California. With emphasis on equity-related issues, Boaler advocates for data science as an alternative pathway to Algebra II in high school math education.

The criticism was politically motivated amid “a movement to remove equity-focused faculty from universities,” Boaler said. She studies math education at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and co-founded Youcubed, a research unit that provides free math resources for parents and educators.

She helped write the newest CMF, a document that advises high school educators in California. While it was submitted in January 2021, the CMF was not finalized until October 2023. The framework includes grade-level requirements and suggestions on how to teach classes.

Controversy surrounded a suggestion in initial versions that data science “validates” or satisfies Algebra II requirements. During the revision process, which lasted over two years, multiple educators, politicians and California businesspeople signed letters and voiced concerns over proposed changes. 

California Mathematics Council President Cole Sampson emphasized that the CMF was “supported by county offices up and down the state of California.”

Sampson said the focus on Boaler’s involvement in the CMF was tied to her influence in the math education field. 

The complaint alleges that misrepresentative citations in the CMF derived from Boaler’s work. Since she is the most cited author, it is based on Bolaer’s work, the complainant writes.

The complaint used public comments on a website by Stanford math professor Brian Conrad to match citation misrepresentations that appeared in both the CMF and Boaler’s research.

“Enough of what I found seemed likely to be a concern shared by many other people,” Conrad said. 

The CMF was not the first to propose data science as an alternative to Algebra II: It was approved in 2014 by the University of California Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS). Following concerns that no Algebra II would leave students unprepared for higher-level math courses. It was revoked by BOARS in July 2023. 

Boaler argued that data science satisfies the Algebra II requirement. 

“It is higher level maths,” she said. “It involves linear algebra and matrices, probability, statistics. The people who are saying it’s not high level maths have a very narrow view of what matters.”

According to Conrad and other critics, the data science replacement “was done irrespective of whether the substantive content of those courses actually adhere to the spirit of the word ‘validation.’”

To Boaler, validation is tied to broader concerns around equitable access to advanced math course.

“The racial breakdown of kids in calculus is horrific. And it’s built in that way,” Boaler said. “There are more courses in front of calculus than there are years of high school.” Research she co-authored found that students who take data science courses grow more positive about STEM and more interested in higher education.

Mathematicians versus educators?

The complaint “is clearly a disrespect of educators,” Boaler said. She echoed Sampson’s point that the CMF was supported across the state and the California Teachers Association.

But some critics pushed back. Conrad said that anyone could draw the same conclusions “although my mathematical knowledge may have led me to hone in on certain claims as not sounding plausible.”

According to Sampson, the complaint regurgitated points addressed during the revision process. The CMF passed unanimously following revisions. 

One complaint was about a reference to a 2013 study by Park and Brannon, which appeared in Boaler’s research and the CMF. The citation focuses on how mathematical learning is optimized when two sides of the brain communicate with each other. 

According to the complaint, however, the study does not support this claim since it was based on an adult sample. Additionally, they argued that neural claims were inaccurate since it didn’t involve brain imaging.

Boaler said the anonymous complaint does not understand or misinterprets her research. She said the complainant misread educational research and perhaps disagreed with her pedagogical perspectives.

“An anonymous complaint is particularly cowardly,” Boaler said.

The University is reviewing the anonymous complaint, which was circulated in online publications, wrote Alumni Affairs Vice President Howard Wolf ’80 to Avery Wang ’88 M.S. ’88 Ph.D. ’94 in an email obtained by The Daily.

The Daily has reached out to Wang, who studied applied mathematics, and the University for comment.

In a tweet on X, Jelani Nelson called on Stanford “to outsource the Boaler investigation to a neutral third party.” Nelson is an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since Youcubed is a Stanford research unit, an internal investigation would pose a conflict of interest, Nelson wrote. Along with Conrad and others, Nelson organized a public statement that emphasized how essential Algebra II was to high school education. The statement stresses that “Students desiring to earn a 4-year college degree in data science, economics, or any STEM field must prioritize learning Algebra II in high school.”

Sampson characterized the discourse around curriculum as unproductive and combative. “Attacking each other and trying to disprove each other, as opposed to the dialogue is not getting us anywhere.”