What's math got to do with it?

Jo Boaler is a well known scholar within the field of mathematics education research, and she has written several books and articles related to the teaching and learning of mathematics. On June 30, a book called "What's Math Got to Do with It?: How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject" will be released. I have read previous books and articles that Boaler has written, and I have even had the privilege of attending one of her lectures (at ICME-10 in Copenhagen), so I am sure this book will also be worth reading! Here is a copy of the product description from Amazon:
A recent assessment of mathematics performance around the world ranked the United States twenty-eighth out of forty countries in the study. When the level of spending was taken into account, we sank to the very bottom of the list. We are falling rapidly behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to math education—and the consequences are dire.

In this straightforward and inspiring book, Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics education at Stanford for nine years, outlines concrete solutions that can change things for the better, including classroom approaches, essential strategies for students, and advice for parents. This is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the mathematical and scientific future of our country.


nduffy said...

After reading this book I realize how important it is to give children choice time and allow them to explore math manipulatives. As teachers we must always have a purpose for our instruction and be sure our students understand why we ask them to work on various tasks. Lessons need to be open and authentic for students to be actively engaged. I look at our Everyday Math program in our district with high regard and respect after reading this book and recommend it to every teacher and parent.

Anonymous said...

Overall, What’s Math Got to Do with It? was a thoughtful and very readable book.

The problem reform math has with providing sufficient rigor is not addressed in the book. Traditional math advocates are most often concerned with the lack of rigor in reform curricula. Boaler provides anecdotes about certain classes of reform math students doing well on certain standardized tests – and a lot of time denigrating the tests they do not perform well on – but she doesn’t speak to how reform students perform in college. Math remediation rates are in excess of 50% for students entering college in Washington State (kids entering college need to take high-school level classes in college before they are ready for real college work). Reform math does not seem to be addressing that.

All of her ideas assume an excellent teacher. The anecdotes about Railside and with the summer school are all really about an excellent teacher stepping in and communicating a love of math to kids. Boaler is obviously a very inspiring math teacher herself, but she says little in the way of how an average teacher can miraculously get the same results.

My third big problem is her lack of scientific research. It’s well documented that Boaler does not do peer-reviewed research. Her “research” is anecdotes from hand chosen students and schools with specific, excellent teachers. She has never provided data to back up her conclusions like a real scientist. Boaler has opinions; not science. Her opinions are interesting, but her research should not be treated representing facts.

I did like some of the things she said –

The discussion of “number flexibility” or number sense or how to “de-compose and re-compose” numbers was very good and it makes a lot of sense. I’ve seen my kids doing that, and my engineer husband has always done that. She is right that it wasn’t taught before, and I agree that it’s an improvement to include it in math classes.

I like the idea of “math talks” for better understanding of the material. But again, whether that works depends heavily on the teacher.


Kids will not be able to take calculus in high school unless they’re in the “honors” math track. They need algebra in 8th grade in order to get through geometry, trig/alg 2, pre-calculus and calculus in high school. I guess if these were all provided in a de-tracked environment, parents might be more willing – but there aren’t enough years to fit it all in. Boaler outlines a way it can all fit, but it sounds kind of expensive and risky (90 minute classes, cramming a full year of math into ½ year). I notice that Boaler does not recommend de-tracking unless this course of study is in place.

I can’t believe Boaler gets away with saying that Japan does not use tracking in its school system. Japanese elementary students are not tracked, but every single Japanese high school student is tracked. Japanese public high schools are each rated for academic rigor (a variety of rigor/track options are provided) and students must take a high-stakes test to get in. Schools offering more rigor are harder to test into and are in great demand. My brother-in-law just got back from teaching English in Japan. He worked in the low-track high school for a time. Again – I just can’t believe Boaler can get away with saying Japan does not track.

Boaler maintains her “research” shows that lower level students do much better when classes are not tracked. Real (peer-reviewed) research on tracking shows that the high-track students do better when tracked and the low students score the same in tracked or de-tracked classes (no effect).

Isabel D’Ambrosia
Seattle Public Schools parent
(5th and 7th grade)