Crossing the Line: When Academic Disagreement becomes Harassment and Abuse
Jo Boaler, The Nomellini-Olivier Professor of Education, Stanford University
Honest academic debate lies at the core of good scholarship. But what happens when, under the guise of academic freedom, a small cluster of aligned people distort the truth in order to discredit someone’s evidence and boost their own allied position? I have come under severe academic and personal attacks for many years from the same male professors, who I list below. I first shared the details of their attacks on my work in 2012, listed below. Their aggressive efforts have intensified significantly in the last three years, due to their consternation over my role as one of the writers of a new proposed mathematics framework for the state of California.
I have decided it is time to reveal the details of this recent campaign.
I am a Stanford University professor, with an endowed chair, and a researcher of mathematics education. This past year I was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University for my services to education. My research focuses on the most effective environments for students learning mathematics and has won awards in both the United Kingdom and the United States. My focused studies have shown that students who engage actively in their mathematics learning, rather than simply practicing procedures, achieve at higher levels. This is a selection of other studies that support this.
Since joining the faculty of Stanford University in 1998 I have experienced fierce personal and professional attacks. The first came from two mathematicians – James Milgram (Stanford, retired) and Wayne Bishop (Cal State, LA). Milgram and Bishop are opposed to reforms of mathematics teaching and support the continuation of a model in which most students are filtered out of high-level pathways. This is a model that has created low performance. Approximately one third of students in California are proficient in mathematics. Data on high levels of mathematics show indefensible social and racial inequities.
These two professors are, of course, entitled to this opinion, and there has been an ongoing, spirited academic debate about mathematics learning for a number of years.
But Milgram and Bishop have gone beyond the bounds of reasoned discourse in a campaign to systematically suppress empirical evidence that contradicts their stance. Academic disagreement is an inevitable consequence of academic freedom, and I welcome it. However, responsible disagreement and academic bullying are not the same thing. Milgram and Bishop have engaged in a range of tactics to discredit me and damage my work. Details are shared below. They are now being joined by others – a small but loud group – who are working to stop the proposed California mathematics framework. I have decided to make their tactics public.
The particular area of my research that Milgram and Bishop tried to discredit is focused upon equity and the ways that the mathematics achievement of all students in the US may be raised. I published research, in the UK and the US, showing that when teachers use a different approach and allow all students to go forward, higher, and equitable outcomes result. Milgram and Bishop, and now others, have tried to discredit this research as they do not like the findings. This makes more sense when considering that Bishop has used a highly offensive racial slur when discussing issues of equity. His accusations towards educators, and his descriptions of students serve as important background to the sort of attacks upon my research in which he and Milgram have engaged.
Now in 2023 I am again experiencing the same attempts to suppress research evidence. As stated, this was originally started by Milgram and Bishop, but they are now being joined by others, particularly six men, who are part of a broader, organized campaign to discredit me, that has led to threats of physical violence to myself and my family. This campaign started because I am one of five authors of a new proposed mathematics framework for the state of California.
The framework writing team, a group of mathematicians and mathematics educators, was tasked with writing the ideas collected from a diverse 20-person committee of mathematics leaders from across the state, who were appointed by the Instructional Quality Commission and the State Board. This process followed focus group meetings with math educators from across the state, setting out the changes needed in the state’s mathematics approach. The proposed framework went through two rounds of public comments.
These are the three main objectives of the proposed mathematics framework:
- To open pathways so that more students can reach high levels,
- To support initiatives already in place in California, to broaden high school options, including new pathways to data science and statistics, and
- To teach the content as big ideas and connections, through rich tasks. This move to big ideas has already been passed (in a unanimous vote by the State Board, in May 2021)
The efforts of this small group of people opposing these ideas included several negative articles shared through social media and news media. The first death and rape threats I received came after Tucker Carlson shared my name and image on his Fox News Show with the words: “Professor: ‘Math Should Have Social Justice Infused.’” He suggested that it meant that the framework was proposing that “numbers are racist”. The threatening emails and letters that followed included threats to myself, my two daughters, and directives that “I go back to where I came from.”
The following year, a group of people opposed to the three main objectives in the framework, focused their work on discrediting me, personally and professionally. These new ramped-up attempts to silence me and suppress my research included serving districts with public records requests to find any work I had conducted with teachers. They then published contracts, including my home address, on Twitter (this is called doxing). They claimed I was “robbing districts” which led to a mob on social media attacking my work, and placing my family under physical threat. During the most intense time of doxing and online harassment, which included sharing my personal emails on Twitter, Stanford police decided they needed to include my house in their daily patrols to ensure our safety. The emails the group shared on Twitter included very personal details of my life, including discussion of the recent death of my young niece, from adrenal cancer. The same group petitioned journals to pull my research articles down, and they amplified the older claims made by Milgram and Bishop, that my research on equitable teaching, had included manipulated data. After repeated slurs being added to my Wikipedia page, Wikipedia deleted the slurs and locked the page.
My work as a mathematics educator has always involved highlighting the beauty of mathematics, and working to open pathways so that more students can access higher-level mathematics. I direct a research center at Stanford (www.youcubed.org) that shares free resources for mathematics teachers, students, and parents. I am not a neuroscientist, but I work with neuroscientists at Stanford, and make connections between the evidence that is emerging from neuroscience and mathematics teaching. See for example this article written with neuroscientist Prof. Lang Chen. Some of the neuroscientific evidence I have shared with teachers includes the research on brain plasticity, showing that all students can learn and grow. Other research I have shared concerns the value of times of struggle. In the most recent attempts to discredit my work, those opposed to the framework are challenging my interpretation of neuroscientific evidence.
I welcome challenges to my perspective, as such challenges lead to growth and the development of knowledge. Sadly, these challenges have not taken the form of collegial dialogue, from which learning can emerge, but attacks on my character, once more.
For those who would like to read detail of the challenges being made, see here.
After I was contacted and asked to participate in an article that is appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the end of March, 2023, representing the views of Milgram and six other men, I decided it is time to share the broader context of the attacks on my work, and the attempts to suppress my research and discredit my integrity.
Lifting the lid on my interactions with the Chronicle, the reporter asked me to respond to Milgram’s statement that “I should not be at Stanford” and I should “stay in my lane.” She also said that critics described me as “combative”. I replied that women are often given this label when standing up for their work. I also told her that I give no credence to Dr. Milgram’s very personal and individual assessment of what I should be doing or where I should be working.
I will continue with my research and continue to share the work of teachers who work for equitable outcomes. Over the decades I have worked in mathematics education, in the UK and the US, I have had the privilege of seeing the many strengths in all children. I support any work that places all of our children front-and-center in education debates.
I have also seen that the group working to block change and discredit me are a tiny group of people, who are loud, and who like to seek attention.
The hundreds of thousands of educators, parents, and students who value and benefit from our work, worldwide, vastly outnumber this tiny group, and this page has been established to keep this bigger, more important group of educators informed. My publishing this webpage will probably not stop the attacks, but at least readers will be able to place them within a broader context of the ongoing harassment I continue to experience.
Original posting, from October 2012
Jo Boaler reveals attacks by Milgram and Bishop
Dr Jo Boaler
The following is a timeline of the most significant events.
- In 1999, within months of my moving from London University to Stanford University, Milgram invited me to his office and told me not to talk about my research results in America as American teachers are “too weak” to be able to work in the ways shown to be effective.
- In 2000 I was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Presidential Award which supported a four year research study into the effectiveness of different mathematics teaching approaches in the US.
- Between 1999 and 2003 Bishop posted on mathematics education websites that I had invented the schools in my studies. He asserted that “The schools exist only in her mind.” At the time, his candid comments in some web-based discussions with his perceived allies disclosed the motivation behind his efforts to damage my reputation and discredit my work. He wrote that I was “the worst possible scenario – a researcher in a top university with data”.
- 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.
- In 2005 preliminary results of my NSF research were published, again showing that students who are more actively involved in mathematics achieve at higher levels.
- In 2006 Milgram claimed that I had engaged in scientific misconduct. This is an allegation that could have destroyed my career had it been substantiated. Stanford formed a committee to assess Milgram’s allegations. After reviewing all of my NSF research data, Stanford found that Milgram’s allegations of scientific misconduct were unfounded and terminated the investigation.
- Milgram was informed that there would be no formal investigation of scientific misconduct as the Stanford inquiry found his allegations of scientific misconduct to be without merit. Having failed to convince Stanford, Milgram went public with his damaging allegations.
- Milgram and Bishop attempted aggressively to identify my research subjects – schools and students that had been promised confidentiality for their protection, consistent with fundamental research study principles. Identifying human research subjects is contrary to university policy and federal law. Yet Bishop contacted numerous school district officials, including principals, and pressured them to disclose whether they were subjects of my study. Among other tactics, he threatened to take legal action against them. Two of the people concerned contacted Stanford University and sent details of Bishop’s communication with them. In letters to Stanford they stated that Bishop had been “unprofessional, demanding, condescending, dishonest” and “verbally aggressive”.
- In 2006 Milgram and Bishop posted a “paper” on Milgram’s website in which they claimed that they had identified the schools in my study. They specifically asserted that they “were able to determine the identities of these schools”. The “paper” presented information from which schools, teachers and students in my study could easily be identified. The “paper” went on to attack the schools and students, (eg “The Railside students show that they do not have a good understanding of mathematics”). The “paper” also attacked my integrity as a researcher, claiming for example, that different populations of students were studied at the different schools – a false assertion at the core of the allegations of scientific misconduct that Stanford found to be baseless.
- Milgram and Bishop’s “paper” contravenes federal law that protects the human subjects of research as it identifies schools, teachers and students. Its identification of individual students breaches the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The “paper” has never been peer reviewed, and no journal has accepted it for publication.
- 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.
- A small but active group of people who support Milgram and Bishops’ position continue to use their “paper” to discredit my research. Recently, for example, I was invited to Ireland by government officials to help with the new mathematics reforms that are being implemented nation wide. After appearing on the national news and writing in the Irish Times, my work was attacked by Milgram/Bishop followers, who asserted that my research evidence should be ignored and claimed that a “peer review” of my work had found it to be “flawed”, citing and providing the link to the Milgram/Bishop “paper” on Milgram’s website. The idea that the Milgram/Bishop “paper” was peer-reviewed is incorrect but these attacks serve the purpose of suppressing the impact of my research and the potential benefit it could provide to students in Ireland – and elsewhere.
- In a similar vein, following three recent publications of my research in the US, Ze’ev Wurman has tried to suppress its influence, saying for example my research involves “prime evidence of data cooking”, again linking to the Milgram/Bishop “paper”.
These are examples of the way that the group engages in this continued persecution. All of their attacks are based on the same unfounded “paper” that has never been substantiated, peer-reviewed, or accepted for publication, yet remains available on Milgram’s website.
As the “paper” remains available on Milgram’s website, and as Milgram and Bishop and their group are continuing their efforts to suppress research evidence that could be used to improve the mathematics achievement of students in the United States and beyond, I have decided to provide the details of their bullying behavior. This statement will no doubt be met with more attacks, but readers may now locate such behavior within the broader context in which this persecution takes place.