Jo Boaler and the Woke Math Death Spiral

Jo Boaler and the Woke Math Death Spiral

Jo Boaler is the infamous “mathematics education” professor of Stanford known for charging underfunded school districts $5,000 an hour to advise them to drop middle school algebra classes. In recent weeks, she has acquired a newfound notoriety for her “reckless disregard for accuracy,” even garnering the attention of Elon Musk for her antics. In a state in which only one third of students meet basic mathematics benchmarks, Boaler was a chief architect of the 2021 California Mathematics Framework. The document advocated the further degradation of California’s educational standards by supporting the “de-tracking” of gifted students from their peers to only take Algebra in 9th grade, and its protocols were adopted in 2023. 

Unsurprisingly, Boaler’s dubious work—emblematic of a much more disturbing trend which dumbs down our public education in the name of equity and social justice—comes from faulty research promoted by Stanford-owned YouCubed, Boaler’s math organization at the Graduate School of Education. In addition, the Nomellini & Olivier endowed chair that Boaler holds receives its funding from major Stanford donors—namely Angela Nomellini and Kenneth Olivier. As UC Berkeley professor Jelani Nelson (who was the victim of an intimidation attempt by Boaler) noticed, Stanford University is implicated in a web of funding for Boaler’s shoddy services, and must take action to investigate her alleged misconduct properly. The University is consequently looking into the allegations of Boaler’s work, though it refuses to deem the investigation as a “formal” probe.

Stanford’s YouCubed organization peddles Boaler’s questionable proposals, such as that timed testing instills “math anxiety” into students and that removing grades improves student performance, which actual research proves to be markedly false. 

Boaler’s controversial work fits into her wider pattern of hawking idealistic, dumbed-down math curriculums that prioritize “equity” over merit and rigor, all while dismissing real problems low-income students face such as COVID-induced learning loss. In fact, she directly harmed California students by accepting tens of thousands of dollars from majority-minority school districts for the privilege of hearing her sage advice over a Zoom meeting. Instead of searching for strategies to expand mathematics education, Boaler takes the defeatist approach of assuming that poor, predominantly minority students are unable to keep up with their peers. Worse still, Boaler flouts any criticism of her scholarship as “harassment and abuse.”

Although the merits of the specific academic misconduct allegations against Boaler are in dispute, this debacle epitomizes the general dubiousness of ideology-driven research and elite universities’ complicity in promoting it. It is within elite institutions such as Stanford where DEI ideologues like Boaler are given ample funding and leeway to perform shoddy research driven by social justice rather than academic rigor, as highlighted by the numerous concerns regarding her methodologies from mathematics professor Brian Conrad.

Research from these elite institutions then guides the pedagogy of school districts across the nation, especially in large, urban districts which often have hundreds of thousands of students—such as San Francisco, New York, and Chicago—in addition to the Department of Education. From there, these unelected activist-educators have broad authority to impose their agenda on millions of schoolchildren. 

Unsurprisingly, the implementation of equity-driven education research has been disastrous. From Obama-era guidance that ordered schools to reduce their rates of suspension and expulsion under the facade of “equity,” to the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School’s plan to eliminate rigor and academic merit from its application process, ivory tower education reforms have failed to put a dent in sagging academic performance. Worse still, as these reforms infect public schools, wealthier parents—such as Boaler herself—can afford to send their children to private schools and avoid the fallout from their own failed policies.

Boaler’s egregious behavior of charging exorbitant fees and harassing scholars who take issue with her questionable actions have rightfully garnered national media attention, but the true scope of this problem extends well beyond her. It is the proliferation of wokeness into the paradigm of these elite educational institutions which determine learning standards, disciplinary guidelines, and many other factors of primary and secondary school life for millions of schoolchildren. 

In a state known for its technological innovation and the prowess of its STEM-oriented universities such as Stanford, CalTech, and UC Berkeley, eroding the sanctity of science education in California will prove disastrous and position us to fall behind emerging tech hubs in China, India, and Singapore. Besides being counterproductive, the abandonment of rigor in favor of political signaling is also deeply unpopular, as evidenced by San Francisco’s overwhelmingly Democratic voters recalling three ultra-progressive school board members. Being California’s preeminent university, Stanford has a duty to help stem the self-inflicted hobbling of our education system, and instead strengthen our state’s technology sector by celebrating academic excellence. 

Professor Boaler’s work should be a wakeup call for Stanford to stop using the millions of dollars in donations it receives in a vain attempt to implement progressive-only-in-theory education reforms that leave America’s children worse off. The fact that Stanford funds the very organizations that advance this destructive agenda to such an extent that it is unwilling to formally investigate Boaler is deeply concerning, and it is further evidence that the University should redirect its resources into more innovative and rational solutions.

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