Jo Boaler Shows Her True Colours, Again

There’s something poetically unfair about Jo Boaler being whacked this way and that for gouging some poor school district, and for threatening a black guy with calling the cops. The gouging was real and the threat was undeniable, and undeniably nasty, but none of it was surprising for Boaler and none of it was the point. Her gouging and her being a Professor Karen are not the main reasons why the people now whacking Boaler are so enjoying whacking her. But, God it is fun to watch, and God she deserves it.

For those smart enough to avoid the nauseating theatre of Slow Boaler screwing up California, the Stanford education professor is one of the main forces behind the state’s new and idiotic draft mathematics curriculum. Boaler’s marshalling this nonsense led a teacher malcontent to tweet that Boaler was charging some sucker school district $40,000 to administer her magic potions for a total of eight hours. That led to a retweet by Jelani Nelson, a Berkeley computer science professor who has been fighting Boaler’s curriculum nonsense. Nelson’s retweet in turn inspired Boaler to send her threatening email. Nelson tweeted Boaler’s email, it hit the news and Boaler has been in damage control since.

We don’t want to get into that story, which has been covered pretty well by some (and laughably both-siderish by others). Suffice to say that Boaler has apologised, pretty badly, and she has explained, pretty badly, why she wasn’t really threatening Nelson with cops, and she has been playing, very well, her cherished victim card. What we want to comment on are three episodes from Boaler’s history that have been alluded to during the whacking, and which are worthy of attention. These episodes are best introduced by way of The Stanford Review, one of those snide, right-wing campus newspapers that have turned out to be more valuable than one might wish.

Last week, the Review published an unsigned opinion piece, the best report on Boaler’s spat with Nelson. The piece whacked Boaler full force:

Here’s the reality: Boaler has been exposed over the past year as a charlatan whose ideas are not only disastrous for children, but a political liability for left-wing politicians in California who need parents to keep voting for them. And now, she has been exposed as a rent seeker and a cheap scammer, and is lashing out at the person who posted the evidence.

The piece also suggests the obvious, that Nelson over-egged the racism angle, while not remotely letting Boaler off the hook:

And for what it’s worth, we find no evidence that Boaler brought the police into the situation because of Nelson’s race, as he suggests. Her long history of responding poorly to criticism shows that she is an equal-opportunity critic basher.

Boaler’s critic bashing, as far as we’re aware, began with a screed she published in 2012, accusing Stanford mathematician Jim Milgram and Cal State mathematician Wayne Bishop of “harassment and persecution”. Boaler’s accusation, reported on here, stemmed from Milgram, Bishop and statistician Paul Clopton criticising Boaler’s eminently criticisable Railside study. We won’t revisit that criticism; Milgram et al’s critique is here (with our article on it here), and their responses to Boaler’s screed are here and here. To our knowledge, and although promising to do so, Boaler has never responded to the substance of Milgram et al’s criticisms. It is, of course, much easier to simply scream “persecution”.

The first episode we want to highlight is an excerpt  from Boaler’s screed, describing how the Stanford police were “prompted” to contact Wayne Bishop in LA:

In 2003 Bishop discussed Schools of Education in the US and suggested to readers that they “nuke ‘em all dammit”. This, alongside his personal attacks on my work, prompted Stanford’s police department to travel to LA to speak to Wayne Bishop.

Why? Because, the cops seriously thought Bishop was a terrorist? And how could they ever get such an idea? Bishop explains:

There is some truth in these assertions – the quote is accurate – but the context is completely suppressed as usual. As to the claim “travel to LA,” what actually happened was that the head of the Stanford police department placed a single call to me from Stanford to clarify the frantic report that [Boaler] had made during their off-hours … In spite of the seriousness of terrorism threats, we shared a good laugh …

That’s Boaler for you. Nothing like a little hysterical cop-calling to rally the troops.

The second episode consists of Boaler accusing Bishop of racism:

Bishop has used explicitly racist language when discussing issues of equity, claiming that teachers and other ‘experts’ believe that “little pickaninnies just don’t learn math like we do.” 

Yes, of course, because of course those white guy critics of Boaler will talk like that. The suggestion is prima facie absurd. Boaler took Bishop’s quote grossly out of context, which, as evidenced by calling the cops on Bishop, is what she does. As Bishop notes,

 … this is not language that I use in public or in private except in jest or, as in this case, in derision.

The full story of Bishop’s quote, including the best and very strong defense of Bishop against Boaler’s sleazy attack, is here.

The final episode we want to highlight is Boaler’s time-gap-time as an education professor at Stanford University, briefly referenced in the Stanford Review article:

In 2006, [Boaler] actually left her post [at Stanford] for multiple years after a mathematician, James Milgram, exposed the shoddy methodologies she used in her work. She returned to Stanford in 2010 …

Why, exactly, did Boaler leave Stanford? Why, exactly, did she return? In her screed, Boaler briefly addresses these puzzles:

In 2006 I decided to leave the hostile environment caused by Milgram at Stanford and accepted an award from the Marie Curie Foundation to become the Marie Curie Chair of Mathematics Education in England.

In 2010 I agreed to return to Stanford at the request of the School of Education. Milgram tried – but failed – to block my reappointment.

Skipping past her distasteful self-aggrandisement, Boaler’s claims don’t add up. One professor was sufficient to make Stanford so “hostile” that Boaler simply “decided” to leave? And, Boaler then returned, even though this professor was seemingly no less hostile? On what grounds might Milgram have tried to block Boaler’s reappointment? There are evidently some things that Boaler is not telling us.

Do we know what Boaler is not telling us? We believe we do. We are not, however, in a position to say it publicly. Hopefully someone, perhaps someone from The Stanford Examiner, will ask the right questions of the right people.

UPDATE (13/04/22)

We hadn’t realise it (because he kind of hid it), but Greg Ashman had already written a good and thoughtful post on Boaler, her gouging and the pile-on against her. (It’s paywalled, but you can read a good chunk of it, or all of it if you sign up for a free trial.) Unlike us, Ashman is ambivalent about the pile-on.

One quick point, about Boaler’s justification for her $40K gouging, that one has to also consider the preparation hours, which she weirdly estimated as 11 prep hours per contact hour. Ashman writes,

I don’t think I’ve ever spent 11 hours preparing a presentation and even if I did, I would then reuse much of it in future presentations, where relevant. 

Well, for the record, we will typically go way over 11 hours to prepare a public talk. Of the talks listed here, for example, most of which even portions of were never presented again, none would have taken less than 40 hours to prepare. The original version of Mathematics in Hell took, conservatively, 100 hours to prepare. Of course we did present that talk twice, so let’s call it an even 50. And how much did we get paid, um, per presentation hour? Yes, you guessed right. And, then there’s Jelani Nelson:

It’s not a question of the reasonable hourly rate for an academic. It’s a question of someone who’s doing damn well for themselves, and who declares themselves so, so caring, deciding whether or not to charge what they can from a poor school district. People who care do things dirt cheap, or for free. Boaler, to say the least, did not.

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