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Why we need an equal focus on math proficiency in Oakland Public Schools


“Illiteracy in math is acceptable in a way illiteracy in reading and writing is unacceptable. Failure is tolerated in math, but not in English.” 

— Bob Moses

It seems that every school has made it their mission to focus on building a culture of reading and putting in place the additional supports required to get students reading proficiently before they get to middle school. This is tremendously important work, but what about math?

In 2023, the aggregate math proficiency score for all Oakland public schools was 26 percent. Meaning that 1 in 4 children in Oakland public schools— district and charter included— were able to do math on grade level.

SBAC: Math Proficiency in Oakland Public Schools
Test Year All Students Black Asian Latinx White
2015 25% 11% 51% 16% 57%
2016 27% 13% 54% 17% 60%
2017 28% 13% 57% 19% 65%
2018 29% 14% 58% 21% 66%
2019 30% 14% 55% 20% 63%
2022 26% 12% 54% 15% 61%
2023 26% 14% 55% 16% 56%


When you dive deeper into the data, you see the familiar trend of White and Asian students showing higher levels of math proficiency and Black and Latino students behind. I get that we are trying to build worldly students who understand who they are and where they come from, but have we placed too much emphasis on culture and not enough emphasis on proficiency and problem solving strategies?

Single Digit Nightmare

A deeper dive into the data reveals a fact that I had to triple check because I simply did not believe it: In Oakland just 1.4 out of 10 Black or African-American students is proficient in math and— as a Black student— you have more than a 50 percent chance of enrolling in a school where fewer than 1 out of 10 students who look like you is proficient in math. Wait. What? Yep. 47 of 90 Oakland public schools recorded less than 10 percent (single digit) Black student proficiency in math.

Equity Gaps

Furthermore, at high demand schools like AIMS College Prep High, Chabot Elementary, Claremont Middle, East Bay Innovation Academy, Downtown Charter, Edna Brewer, Francophone, Hillcrest, Sojourner Truth, Manzanita Seed, Melrose Leadership Academy, Oakland Tech, Sankofa, and Sequoia Elementary there is a more than 50 point gap in math proficiency between Black students and Asian and White students.

Maybe the solution lies at some of the public schools where Black student performance is more than double the district average. With numbers still not where our Black students deserve, schools like Redwood Heights (48%), Thornhill (61%), Yu Ming (80%), Montclair (45%), Lincoln (54%), Crocker Highlands (48%), and Aims II (56%) are bucking the trend. What are they doing right? What best practices can we glean from a study of their approach to teaching math to all students— and to students of color?

We say, especially in Oakland, that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ that we want to help uplift Black people and people of color in general, yet we continue to ignore the crisis in front of our eyes. Math proficiency is not just a score on an SBAC card, it’s one indicator of how capable you are of solving complex challenges. Math is also an indicator of your willingness to show up to problems and try different solutions until you find the answer. Once a student believes they cannot learn math, it’s a belief that sticks. Are we comfortable letting that happen and continue to happen?

Or is now the time to apply equal force to this challenge— a force equal to the force we’ve applied to building a culture of reading at our schools? With reading, we all know we are not where we need to be, but we are collectively committed to trying until we solve the problem. That’s the chutzpah we need right now when it comes to math.

Our children are headed into a world filled with numbers and various currencies that they are right now locked out of because we– adults– have not made it our responsibility to help our children develop a more positive relationship with numbers.

This data is a starting point for change. Let’s not read it and defend, but read it and understand where the gaps are and where the opportunities are to show up differently to the challenge. At  Families in Action we believe that when the school, the family, and the policies are aligned, no challenge is insurmountable. We believe, too, that now is the time to develop aggressive strategies to improve our schools’ math and reading proficiency levels. We are excited to partner with the Oakland community to meet our schools and students where they are. That’s the only way we will get to the vision of high quality for every Oakland student.

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