Mathematics Education: Facts versus Sensationalism
by Mark Karadimos (e-mail: [September 23rd, 2019]

     Jo Boaler is a British education author and Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford Graduate School of Education. She has a lot of great ideas (Stanford Alumni, 2019), like:

  • Math anxiety can be addressed and lowered
  • All students (people) are capable of learning math
  • Brain plasticity allows people to learn at all ages
  • A growth mindset allows us to continuously learn
  • There is something called productive struggle
  • Math (like everything) should be taught dynamically (tables, graphs, diagrams, words, ...)

    “To get out of poverty, there are three simple rules: at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.”

         These ideas have merit. They are rooted in cognitive psychology and a considerable amount of research. This is where Boaler and the rest of us should focus. Her website, YouCubed, has great content and equally great messaging, like Anyone Can Learn to High Levels (n.d.).

         It is Boaler's hyperbolic beliefs and those who believe them that must be questioned.

         Boaler claims females suffer in education because school practices favor females (Edison, 2018). According to an explanation posted on the National Council for the Teachers of Mathematics' website (Ganley & Lubienski, 2016), the problem is summed as males are much more likely to pursue math-intensive fields. Then, through backwards logic, attribute it to a fault in the education system. However, none of this is true.

         Contrastingly, Ellison and Swanson (2010) write:

    Another alternate model would be a model in which a lack of girls in the population of extreme high math achievers is not a bad thing: it might be that the girls who could reach the highest achievement levels tend not to do so because they are more likely to have other skills and interests as well and they tend to pursue less math-focused paths that lead them to develop portfolios of skills that will be more valuable in the long run.

         Ellison and Swanson hypothesize most females tend to not pursue mathematic-rich careers due to choice, not inequity in learning opportunities.

         Besides, who is teaching females in US schools? According to Loewus (2017), mainly white women make up our nation's teaching force. Would Boaler also claim these white women are inherently racist (and contribute to underperforming Blacks) or are they poorly skilled or are both true? I am left to speculate.

         Yet again, current events tells us another story that forces us to look at such unfounded views with skepticism. Take the 2012 presidential run. Within the democratic primary, Hillary Clinton (a white woman) lost to Barack Obama (a Black man). This means democratic voters were obviously not racist. Would Boaler say Barack Obama won the election because democrat women were sexist?

         Let's look at the general election in 2012. Barack Obama beat John McCain. This tells us again that racism is less of an issue than Boalers of the world would like us to believe. In fact, there has been nearly a 470% increase in interracial and interethnic marriages since 1967 (Chalabi, 2018).

         Moving on, we can certainly find junk-reporting on racism and sexism in education and society. There is no shortage of it. Let's take a quote from a paper from The Atlantic (Anderson, 2017):

    As the theory goes, with white and Asian students consistently at the top of math-achievement rankings—and black and other nonwhite students continuously trailing behind—teachers start to expect worse performance from certain students, start to teach lower content, and start to use lower-level math instructional practices. By contrast, white and Asian students are given the benefit of the doubt and automatically afforded the opportunity to do more sophisticated and substantive mathematics. The consequences are classrooms where Asian students not excelling in math are seen as an oddity, and black students excelling in math are seen as an outlier.

         So, white teachers are biased in favor of Asian students? This piece -- complete tripe, by the way -- would lead us to think that the main reason (or only reason) for Asian success in education is due to inherent biases by teachers, who are mainly white women?

         This contempt for the educational establishment and society is not alone. Guo (2016) believes the main reason for Asian success was not due to Asians who work hard, have values, or have parents active in their lives. He believes it is due to other Americans who simply gave them respect. These views are pure, simplistic poppycock.

         The real truth about success are values and not being mired by Boaler's and like-minded views. To get out of poverty, there are three simple rules (Haskins, 2013): at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children. Following those simple rules affords about 75% of adherents to the middle class. Imagine how that statistic can be raised if better choices are made in more areas.

         Here are what educational groups (not the hyperbolic editorialists) have identified as factors for finding success. Learning Liftoff (2019) states these factors: culture, brain plasticity, benefiting from effective learning models, motivation to learn, and technology. WH Magazine (n.d.) lists these factors: socio-economics, parents' education, school structure/resources, safety, learning disabilities, language barriers, teachers/administration, student willingness.

         I would add these factors: having a two-parent family, receiving enrichment opportunities outside of school, and reading for enjoyment.

         Attacking the fundamental premise of Boaler's personal belief system, a very left-of-center view, is a simple task, as been done herein, but I do not reject her efforts to make gains within minority and poor communities. It is obviously an anathema to me when people make ridiculous claims that go unchallenged. It seems to be a growing trend that is becoming disturbing to those who dig deeper, across several news platforms. One thing is for certain, Boaler's interviews and personal thoughts gain her attention and no doubt a lot of support. People tend to receive support when they indicate a problem exists and then claim to fix it. She does promote her website, all the while.

         Also, maybe Boaler is only reflecting on problems within the UK and should not be extrapolated to the US or any other country. Someone should tell the Boaler's of the world that women are 35% more likely to attend college in the UK and this true disparity can be traced back to high school (Weale, 2016). Also, 2.7 million more females than males will be in college in 2019 (NCES, 2019).

         In the UK according to the 2011 census (UK Government, 2019), 18.9% of Black households were made up of a single parent with dependent children whereas Asian households was at 5.7%. US statistics are more telling (Livingston, 2018). 51% of all Black children are being raised by a single parent whereas that statistic lowers to 10% for Asians children.

         Obviously, there are obvious cultural, parental forces at play that sometimes go unrecognized and do extend to values. While the purview of schools is to focus on skills and concepts, schools do approach general sets of values related to academia. These concepts include but are not limited to discipline, metacognition, critical thinking, problem solving, and civic duty.

         Many schools have mission and vision statements that include being members of the 21st Century, being independent, life-long learners. We can look to those visions. We can strive to those missions. To do so, we need to address the true impediments to our success, especially for the sake of mathematics education and the pursuit of truth.

    Anderson (2017) How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education? The Atlantic. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Chalabi (2018) What's Behind the Rise of Interracial Marriage in the US? The Guardian News. Accessed on September 22nd, at Edison (2018) Women in the Math Wars: Jo Boaler. HuffPost News. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Ellison and Swanson (2010) The Gender Gap in Secondary School Mathematics at High Achievement Levels: Evidence from the American Mathematics Competitions. Accessed on September 22nd, 2010 at

    Guo (2016) The Real Secret for Asian American Success Was Not Education. Washington Post. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Haskins (2013) Three Simple Rules Poor Teens Follow to Join the Middle Class. The Brookings Institution. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Learning Liftoff (2019) 5 Factors that Affect Learning. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Livingston (2018) About One-Third of U.S. Children are Living with an Unmarried Parent. Pew Research. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at Loewus (2017) The Nation's Teaching Force is Still Mostly White and Female. Education Week. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    NCES (2019) Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Ganley & Lubienski (2016) Current Research on Gender Differences in Math. NCTM. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at Stanford Alumni (2019) Creative, Flexible Mathematics with Jo Boaler. YouTube. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at UK Government (2019) Families and Households. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    Weale (2016) UK's University Gender Gap is a National Scandal, Says ThinkTank. The Gaurdian News. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    WH Magazine (n.d.) Factors that Influence Learning. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

    YouCubed (n.d.) Anyone Can Learn to High Levels. Accessed on September 22nd, 2019 at

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