News

Stanford and Cal professors level accusations as debate over state math curriculum rages

April 7, 2022, 12:32 a.m.

A Stanford education professor became embroiled in social-media controversy this week, as colleagues and Bay Area community members traded insults and allegations of harassment and threats. 

But while the slew of accusations of harassment and misinformation made waves on Twitter, the dispute is grounded in a deeper controversy about education policy in California. At stake? The state’s math curricula for K-12 schools.

Over the past decade, leaders in education reform have amended policy guidelines in an attempt to improve educational equity. But the reforms have been met with vehement criticism from educators and policy advocates across California, who contend that the changes could have the opposite effect, damaging equity in public education for marginalized groups.

Jo Boaler, the Stanford professor at the heart of the controversy, has been one of the leading voices spearheading the changes — she was the chief author of the 2021 California Mathematics Framework (CMF), which sought to help solve educational equity problems by reshaping the state’s math curriculum. In California, achievement gaps between wealthy, primarily white students and low-income students from marginalized groups are widely recognized as a problem, their effects reverberating all the way through higher education.

Replacing the previous framework implemented in 2013, the reformed framework attempted to remedy achievement gaps by urging public schools to remove certain accelerated math tracks from middle school education. Boaler’s guidelines have become a basis for a statewide push to move these classes, specifically Algebra I, out of middle school. The goal, the authors state, is to maintain rigorous standards while lowering educational barriers.

But leading opponents have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the framework since its publication. In an open letter published in December, they argued that if implemented, the suggestions to eliminate advanced math class offerings during early education would merely delay the problem until college, rather than properly closing the education achievement gap.

“Such a reform would disadvantage K-12 public school students in the United States compared with their international and private-school peers,” the authors wrote. “It may lead to a de facto privatization of advanced mathematics K-12 education and disproportionately harm students with fewer resources.”

Jelani Nelson, the University of California Berkeley professor whose tweets last week sparked the social media firestorm, was one of the authors of the open letter (which has received signatures from nearly 1,700 STEM professionals and academics, including seven Nobel Prize winners). On March 31, Nelson denounced the CMF proposition on Twitter for lacking input from Black professors. Nelson then criticized Boaler for earning handsome compensation for providing professional development training to math teachers within the Oxnard School District.

“One author has alarmingly lucrative consulting deals with school districts with large minority populations,” Nelson tweeted, including another tweet that contained a financial document.

The screenshot of the public contract showed that Boaler trained teachers in the Oxnard school district for a rate of $5,000 an hour in 2021, earning $40,000 over the span of four two-hour sessions.

The original tweet and contract, which was posted by a math teacher at San Francisco’s Lowell High School who opposes the CMF, also included Boaler’s home address. The original poster later removed the tweet after being notified that it violated Twitter’s policies, according to Boaler.

Boaler said that the screenshot was taken out of context and did not include the additional hours of work that she spent on the job.

“This fee of $5,000 [an] hour is not correct,” Boaler said. “They got that figure from a district correcting a payment. I worked for over 10 hours for that amount. But the sharing of that figure has been picked up and spread like wildfire with comments that I am a cheat, a charlatan, a grifter.”

Less than one week later, Nelson published another thread of tweets containing screenshots of an email that Boaler sent to him. The email, which urged Nelson to voice his concerns to the authors of the framework, added that “the sharing of private details about me on social media yesterday is now being taken up by police and lawyers.” It also accused Nelson of propagating misinformation and harassment against Boaler.

According to Boaler, the sentence invoking police and lawyers was in reference to the original tweet that included the contract screenshot, not Nelson’s.

“I now realize that I should never have mentioned police, in case it was perceived as a threat or related to him. I wish I could take everything back. I am really saddened by what has happened on Twitter — and the number of people who believed his claim that I was ‘calling the cops on a Black man’,” Boaler said. “I have received several abusive and threatening emails since he tweeted this, and a lot of threats and abuse on social media, and have now had to change my phone number.”

This is not the first time that Boaler has received threatening messages in response to her work in education. In 2012, Boaler took to the Internet to call out “harassment and persecution” by two mathematics scholars amid a national debate about the future of education policy. In October, Boaler’s photo and personal details were posted on Fox News in an attempt to ridicule her work, which she said resulted in death threats.

But according to Nelson, troubling reactions to the screenshots of the email do not change the message’s content. The email was a clear display of intimidation, Nelson said, adding that it falsely accused him of harassment and spreading misinformation.

“The accusations came immediately after a sentence invoking police and lawyers, a sequence that could only be read in context as a threat against me specifically,” Nelson told The Daily. “These false allegations are very serious, and I do not take them lightly.”

Boaler said she did not give Nelson’s name to the police.

Both Boaler and Nelson said that they hoped the controversy would not drown out discussion surrounding the future of mathematics education policy in California.

In response to concerns shared by educators and community members, the authors of the CMF have worked to revise the recommendations to provide a framework for advancing students in math based on merit.

But despite ongoing revision efforts from the authors to alleviate concerns about potential harmful effects on equity in education, Nelson and other critics are still standing against the framework’s recommendations.

“This pathway leaves students unprepared for quantitative four-year college degrees via a newly proposed pathway for teaching mathematics that lacks essential content,” Nelson said. “Instead of reducing the gap, the CMF proposal will worsen disparities as students from affluent families will access private instruction and tutors while under-resourced students will be left behind.”

Bryan Brown, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, said he believes that there is still potential for a productive discourse between proponents of the CMF and the framework’s detractors.

“The common ground that they do share is a focus on improving mathematics education for everyone,” Brown said. “This should be a conversation and a partnership of two people with common mind, not a debate on Twitter.”

Jed Ngalande contributed reporting.

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is a News Managing Editor at The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. Contact the news sections at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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