Attacks on mathematics education reform: If it’s on the Internet, it must be true

October 17, 2012 at 8:47 am 6 comments

I recommend reading the whole sordid story below, of mathematics faculty decrying mathematics education reform efforts because they believe that it’s not rigorous enough.  The story is a familiar one to many who have tried to change education to be more engaging or improve retention.  I’ve certainly heard similar claims made about Media Computation (e.g., “If students are now passing MediaComp when they used to fail CS, then he must be lowering standards!  How else could he be getting students to stay?”).

A thread I found particularly intriguing in this story is the assumption by the critics that peer-review and publication are meaningless.  The only source for critique of the math ed reform in question is this one, never-published essay available on a Stanford FTP site.  One of the essay’s authors insists that it was peer-reviewed, just never published, because he never found time to make the corrections that he was required to make by the human research board.  In other words, it was peer-reviewed, found wanting, and he chose not to revise-and-resubmit.  In response to the quote below: Yes, if they couldn’t get it published, that fact does undermine its worth.

This is a rejection of academic standards — by academics!

Ze’ev Wurman, a supporter of Milgram and Bishop, and one who has posted the link to their article elsewhere, said he wasn’t bothered by its never having been published. “She is basically using the fact that it was not published to undermine its worth rather than argue the specific charges leveled there by serious academics,” he said.

via Stanford professor goes public on attacks over her math education research | Inside Higher Ed.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  October 17, 2012 at 10:19 am

    A sickening story. I ordered her book to get a better sense of her ideas and methods. I’m literally prejudiced to agree with what she’s doing, but am still curious as to the details.

    However, as you pointed out the real issue is the underhanded nature of the attacks. She is smart to show grace in the face of nasty and mean tactics. As Socrates pointed out, writing lingers on far beyond the reach of resolving and correcting. No matter how thoroughly the attackers are discredited, future enemies have been given tools for demagoguery. This fits into other intellectual sins such as the way evolution is generally attacked.

    In a way, the virulence and over the top nature of the attacks helps her cast doubt. I remember some more measured attacks on Seymour Papert, in the 80s especially, that I think were more damaging because they were done by respected researchers (some of whom are even more respected today), were peer reviewed, and yet completely missed the point (and also missed what needed to be investigated in the classrooms to understand whether Papert’s ideas about mathematics and how it could be taught with LOGO were actually good ideas).

    One way to look at the problem is that the area in question is very soft with very often too many degrees of freedom to track down and control. This makes attempts at Science look more like “aping science” in that studies are done, math is used, conclusions are reached, but the experiments are poor to downright bad and the conclusions meaningless.



  • 2. guy  |  October 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Yes I can see how this hits home for you. So sad. But now that the issue is out in the open and with support from the likes of Devlin, Kilpatrick, Schoenfeld, … hopefully Ms. Boaler will pursue her work with added fervor. I too have ordered a copy of the book. Thanks Mark.

  • 3. nickfalkner  |  October 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for the story, Mark, depressing though it is.

    One of the interesting comments refers to an open letter from Dan Fendel about Milgram (who cites Bishop) attacking the Interactive Mathematics Program.
    No idea how much this can be trusted, as it is an open post, but worth pointing out, especially if it indicates a systematic endeavour to attack people who are attempting to reform mathematics.

  • 4. km  |  October 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    I suggest reading the report by Milgram, Bishop and Clopton.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  October 19, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      I did. I was not at all convinced.

  • 6. Mark Miller  |  October 21, 2012 at 1:18 am

    Giving Boaler the benefit of the doubt, what was remarkable to me reading the account was how many other people in her field accepted the article by Milgram, et al. uncritically. I found the article’s position on “high standards” in research ironic, given how it was written. It may be a legitimate point, nevertheless (I have no expertise on best practices within this field of research), but they don’t follow their own standard, IMHO.


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