San Francisco Cited This Professor To End 8th Grade Algebra. Her Research Had 'Reckless Disregard for Accuracy,' Complaint Alleges.

Complaint against Jo Boaler alleges 52 instances of misrepresented research

Stanford professor Jo Boaler (
March 20, 2024

A Stanford University professor, whose research was credited with inspiring San Francisco’s failed experiment to ax 8th grade algebra, is facing allegations of "reckless disregard for accuracy" in her work, according to an official academic complaint filed Wednesday with Stanford’s provost and dean of research.

The anonymous complaint, backed by a California-based group of math-and-science focused professionals, alleges that Professor Jo Boaler—the most prominent influence on California’s K-12 math framework that nudges schools away from accelerated math pathways—has in 52 instances misrepresented supporting research she has cited in her own work in order to support her conclusions. These include the notions that taking timed tests causes math anxiety, mixing students of different academic levels boosts achievement, and students have been found to perform better when teachers don’t grade their work. This pattern of "citation misrepresentation," the complaint alleges, violates Stanford’s standards of professional conduct for faculty, showing a disregard for accuracy, and may violate the university's research integrity rules.

"[D]ue to the potential impact and influence Dr. Boaler may have upon the math education of CA K-12 public school students … it is imperative to investigate the allegations of citation misrepresentation in Dr. Boaler’s work," the complaint states.

The allegations come amid backlash against equity-focused educational policies Boaler has championed. The University of California—whose 10 campuses include some of the United States’ most prestigious universities—has reasserted its admissions policy that high school students must take Algebra II, and may no longer swap it with "math-light" data science courses such as those produced by Youcubed, a Stanford center run by Boaler. UC's move drew praise from Silicon Valley executives like Tesla founder Elon Musk and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. And San Francisco public schools are restoring middle school algebra—which the district axed a decade ago citing Boaler as a major influence—after years of declining student performance.

Wednesday’s complaint alleges that Boaler’s pattern of misrepresenting research citations could violate Stanford’s strict standards of accuracy and academic integrity for its faculty. The university’s research handbook states that the "importance of integrity in research cannot be overemphasized," and stresses that faculty have a "responsibility to foster an environment which promotes intellectual honesty and integrity, and which does not tolerate misconduct in any aspect of research or scholarly endeavor." Stanford deems "reckless disregard for accuracy" a "misdeed."

"In the case of a serious violation of these standards, a faculty member may face disciplinary charges," the faculty handbook says.

On the question of timed tests causing "math anxiety," Boaler has asserted that "researchers now know that students experience stress on timed tests that they do not experience even when working on the same math questions in untimed conditions." As evidence, she cites a study by psychologist Randall Engle. However, Engle’s paper in question deals with "working memory" rather than student anxiety, and Engle himself called the assessment a "huge misrepresentation" of his work.

Anna Stokke, a mathematics professor at the University of Winnipeg who has studied this claim and found that it contradicts available evidence, said many math teachers nonetheless seem to believe it—and that their belief seems to stem from Boaler.

"I’ve tried to figure out where this misconception comes from among teachers, that timed tests cause math anxiety, and it often seems to lead back to Jo Boaler's faulty opinion piece," Stokke told the Washington Free Beacon.

In other instances, Boaler has said students have "achieved at significantly higher levels" if teachers offered "diagnostic comments" on their work instead of grading them—citing a 1988 study that involved giving a random sample of students a basic language task and some puzzle questions outside of their normal classrooms. The study did not involve an actual academic class taught over the course of several months—a limitation acknowledged by the study’s author but not by Boaler.

Boaler has also claimed that students reached more advanced levels of math, and enjoyed the subject more, if students of all achievement levels learned together. This assertion was reiterated in California’s math framework as a reason to avoid separating advanced students from their lower-performing peers. But the study cited in both cases was not looking solely at the virtues of classroom diversity, but rather the benefits of teaching an accelerated algebra course to all 8th graders in a "diverse suburban school district"—a fact that went unmentioned by Boaler.

Boaler's spokesman Ian McCaleb on Tuesday declined to comment on the complaint before it was filed.

"Dr. Boaler is confident in the integrity and expansiveness of the research that backs her work," he said.

Cole Sampson, a member of the committee that vetted the California framework who has defended its guidelines and the research behind them, said the complaint is an effort by its opponents to "discredit" Boaler.

"While I am not assuming the intent of those I have never met face-to-face, I could imagine why those with opposing views would choose to target and critique the work of Dr. Boaler over all the others who played a pivotal role in the new framework, given her 100K+ followers on social media and the attention (like this report) would draw to their attempt to slow progress of mathematics in the state of California," Sampson said in an email.

Boaler runs a center out of Stanford called Youcubed, which produces data science courses promoted in the California math framework and offers consulting services. Records from one California public school district showed she charged $5,000 per hour in fees. She has also cultivated a high profile in educational and progressive circles. After she drew negative press for the initial drafts of the equity-focused California math framework that she led, she sought help from Democratic megadonor Laurene Powell Jobs to advocate for the guidelines to California governor Gavin Newsom, according to emails.

In correspondence with the Free Beacon, she has downplayed her influence in San Francisco public schools’ 2014 decision to ditch middle school algebra for equity reasons—a policy that was just reversed by San Francisco’s school board and rejected by a voter referendum. Yet she frequently praised the elimination of that course—in a Stanford video, in her research, and op-eds. The district’s former superintendent also credited her research as an inspiration for the policy.