**In 2014, San Francisco removed Algebra from its middle schools as part of an ideology that opposes tracking students into courses based on skill level. Nearly ten years later, they are set to reverse that decision after a study found the experiment unsuccessful at achieving a host of outcomes, including not increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups taking high level math courses.****By contrast, in 2019, Dallas began enrolling middle school students into advanced courses based on their standardized test scores. This has led to more underrepresented students taking Algebra in middle school, and evidence suggests they are learning the subject.****Oakland Unified School District chose to follow San Francisco’s model. While there are still limited pathways to advanced courses for the most determined students, OUSD’s ideology limits educational opportunities for high achieving students. It also often fails to meet the needs of struggling students who would benefit from remediation.****In addition, untracked classes prioritize “equal access” for the students enrolled in public schools, but fail to account for more challenging curriculum and expectations at private schools, charters, and other school districts.**

A few years ago, I worked as a teaching assistant in an introductory statistics course that was a prerequisite for admission into Haas Business School at UC Berkeley. Early one semester, two former Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) students began attending my office hours regularly because they were struggling with the foundational math skills needed for the course. They knew I had taught in OUSD previously and believed that I could understand why they were having so much difficulty with the content, even though they had earned an “A” in every math course they had taken prior to college.

Despite their impressive effort, those students dropped the course midway through the semester, simply unable to keep up with their better prepared classmates. I hope they were able to find success in another major, though it is likely less lucrative and possibly fulfilling than the business degree they intended to pursue. I fear that they may now be part of the nearly 40 percent of those with student loan debt and no degree to show for it.

While not every OUSD student needs to attend UC Berkeley’s business school, or college at all, those who do wish to continue their education should be prepared with the skills they need. Unfortunately, data indicates this is too often not the case. According to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), slightly more than one third of OUSD students who enrolled in college in 2016 graduated within 6 years,1 far less than the 62.3% graduation rate of all students during that same time period. Obviously, this statistic can be partially explained by the host of challenges that low income students must overcome in general. However, one of those challenges should not be the prevailing ideology in OUSD schools that limits each student’s opportunity to receive the best education they are capable of obtaining.

**San Francisco’s Experiment**

On March 5, San Francisco voters will vote on a resolution that encourages the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to offer Algebra to 8th graders. This comes less than a decade after SFUSD removed Algebra from its middle schools, labeling the practice of tracking based on skill level as “simply wrong.”

In the years after Algebra was removed from middle schools, SFUSD made several misleading claims to prove how well their policy was working. For instance, in a 2017 press release, SFUSD boasted:

SFUSD students who took Algebra 1 in 8th grade in 2014 (the last year it was offered as a stand-alone course to eighth graders) had a repeat rate of 40 percent. By contrast, current 11th graders, all of whom likely took Common Core Math 8 in eighth grade and Algebra 1 for the first time in 9th grade, had an Algebra 1 repeat rate of only 7 percent.

Unfortunately, the press release failed to provide the context that between 2014 and 2017, SFUSD no longer required students to demonstrate proficiency on the state test to avoid having to retake the course.

Only after Stanford released a study evaluating the changes to math in early 2023 was SFUSD forced to change course. In a presentation recommending bringing Algebra back to middle schools last month, SFUSD acknowledged:

By contrast, Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) tried a very different approach in 2019. Instead of limiting what courses students were allowed to take, Dallas automatically enrolled students who scored well on standardized tests into advanced courses. The results so far have been impressive. More students from underrepresented racial groups are taking honors courses in middle school, including in math, where 60% of Dallas ISD’s 8th graders now take Algebra, up from 20% just four years ago. Passing rates for the 8th grade Algebra test have also remained steady, indicating that students really are learning the subject.

In spite of these very different results, the state of California adopted a model similar to San Francisco as for its math framework in 2023. Jo Boaler, one of the framework’s authors, explained, “We know we’re not doing kids any favors cramming high-school-level math courses into middle school.”

**OUSD Follows San Francisco**

In a February 2022 letter, OUSD explained its decision to discontinue offering Algebra in middle schools as well, citing SFUSD’s “success” as one of the reasons. They also note that the district has ways for students to still take Calculus in high school, including by taking two math courses simultaneously, taking an Algebra 2/Math Analysis compression course, or by enrolling in summer school or a math course at Peralta.2

However, the narrow debate about when Algebra should be offered often obscures the more important idea that enrolling in a class is not the same thing as actually learning the material one should in that class. When too many students are unable to complete work at grade level, the teacher is forced to lower standards or move through material at a slower pace. This is often the case in math, where 24.9% of all OUSD students, and only 16.3% of 11th grade students, meet standards. In an effort to make their classes accessible for more students, some teachers where I work are now devoting one out of every five class periods towards allowing students to retake assessments they have previously failed.

The result of this is that students who are capable of working at grade level or excelling miss content they are supposed to learn when the class is forced to slow down. A colleague, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that students missing material was a problem in his high school math classes even before the changes to middle school Algebra. He wrote:

The district recommended creating a new course of algebra 2 combined with math analysis so students could get to calculus, but we already have problems with our students not learning things necessary for AP calculus BC, like conics, parametrics, polar, vectors, and they struggle with trigonometry. Condensing those two courses would lose even more topics.

Refusing to track math courses also means that schools are likely not using time in the most effective way for lower performing math students. For example, when students submit work in my class, they are sometimes asked to calculate their percentage and translate it to a letter grade, with the equation given to them. A surprising amount are unable to complete this task, and their general lack of understanding basic math concepts is evident. While calculating a grade may seem trivial, numeracy is consistently linked to the ability to make sound financial decisions. Obviously, those who struggle with percentages will struggle to understand how to best use a credit card. Therefore, an Algebra class with lower performing students could spend time reviewing concepts the students need but had not previously learned, while still doing enough Algebra to make sure students fulfill their graduation requirement. This would both benefit those students and not hamper the progress of those who are able to move at a faster pace.

In my humanities classes, the gaps in literacy and varying levels of interest in academics have always made challenging the stronger students difficult. For instance, the common high school practice of assigning a reading for homework and using class time to discuss or analyze it is often not an effective way of achieving learning goals. This is because too many students are unable to access grade level text or unwilling to complete homework, which means ample class time must be devoted to reading and helping struggling students through material.3

Unlike a math class where certain skills are needed to proceed, humanities classes have always had the advantage of modified readings, sentence starters, discussion grades, and other workarounds to better meet students at their level and still maintain some intellectual rigor for the more advanced students. Yet, even that has been challenged in recent years with the influx of migrants who come to the United States with little English. When they first arrive, OUSD has built classes and curriculum around their needs. Where I work, the program for newcomer students is staffed by excellent teachers who do an exceptional job both educationally and socially with these young people. However, the criteria to exit this program is often based on time spent in the United States, not the ability to comprehend language anywhere near grade level. The result of this is that students who score a 1 out of 4 on the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC), meaning they “May know English words and phrases,” but cannot yet “Use English to communicate simple ideas,” are placed in the same class as students who want to go to college.

**Lack of Tracking Impacts Enrollment and Opportunity**

In that same 2022 letter, OUSD also included this reason to discontinue offering Algebra:

Geometry enrollment data shows that tracking 8th grade math classes increases tracking and segregation in our high schools. Students of color have been less likely to enroll in an advanced math course. It is our goal as a district to ensure that all students, particularly those from underrepresented communities, have access to college-preparatory level math courses.

This perfectly encapsulates the dominant progressive response in education these past few years to addressing racial disparities stemming from historical injustices; we prioritize changing metrics and standards to achieve the appearance of equality. For example, even though Dallas ISD’s approach likely actually is giving more underrepresented students access to real college-preparatory level math classes, we would struggle to implement a similar policy in Oakland because the racial demographics of those taking advanced math are not completely equal. In essence, we are making the choice that giving all OUSD students equal “access” by forcing everyone into the same classes is more important than providing the opportunities that others benefit from.

In addition to limiting the more advanced students, this way of thinking also misses the important point that alternatives to the public school system exist, particularly for families with financial means. In an editorial encouraging a vote for Algebra in SFUSD middle schools, the *San Francisco Chronicle* Editorial Board wrote:

San Francisco public schools are hemorrhaging students. Many of those who leave the district do so in middle school; sixth-grade enrollment in the district’s non-charter schools fell from 3,723 in 2016-17 to 3,418 in 2022-23, according to state Department of Education data. Stemming this decline demands a better response to the needs of parents.

OUSD is facing a similar issue. Last school year, OUSD enrolled nearly 3,000 fewer students than it did in 2017, and enrollment is at its lowest point in over a decade. Since OUSD’s funding is largely from the state and is tied to student attendance, declining enrollment is about to contribute to massive budget cuts and the contentious plans to close schools.

Data about which high schools families are demanding for their children indicates this decline is at least partially a self-inflicted choice. Of the six large comprehensive high schools in Oakland, only Oakland Tech consistently has more first choice applications than students enrolled, with hundreds of potential students unable to get in each year. What makes Oakland Tech different is its Paideia program, which allows students to track into more difficult humanities classes if they so choose. As the program description explains:

The Paideia Program‘s goal is to build scholars out of all its students. We expect our students to share this goal. To do so we expect each member of our learning community to come in everyday prepared to learn, to contribute, and to grow. There will be 45-60 minutes of homework every day (sophomore year) that directly informs the activity of the class the next day, so completing it to the best of one’s ability is crucial to a successful and enjoyable class.4

Parents with financial options or high academic expectations whose students are not accepted to Oakland Tech will choose private schools or more rigorous charters. This only exacerbates the inequalities in educational opportunity by removing potentially involved and dedicated parents and families from participating in the public school project entirely. As one parent told me as she pulled her child from my school, “It’s outrageous that I have to pay for private school so my son can be assigned a little homework.”

For those not as financially fortunate as that parent, their children are often stuck in classrooms that do not challenge or engage them, as was clearly the case with those students I taught at UC Berkeley. Too often in OUSD high schools, we celebrate the perfectly calibrated diversity in our classrooms, believing learning outcomes can be made more equal by forcing all students who remain in public schools to learn at the same pace.

In reality, trying to make every academic class for everyone does not benefit most students. Some do not need the academic rigor that prepares them for a four year college immediately, but should have access to intellectually challenging classes that both meet them at their level and provide the fundamental skills needed to live in our world and engage in our democracy. For those who want to pursue more academically demanding majors, OUSD should not limit their ambitions and opportunities. Removing options and resources from our public education system is not progressive, it is the opposite of that.

This is something that even the most influential de-trackers seem to understand when it comes to the education of their own children. Jo Boaler, author of the framework eliminating Algebra from California middle schools, sent her child to a private middle school that, of course, offers Algebra to all 8th graders.

The NSC does not have data on 25% of OUSD enrollees. 27.5% of the 75% tracked by NSC graduated, which is 36.6% of the tracked population.

SFUSD acknowledges students taking Algebra outside the district before 9th grade was a workaround to their policy. While I was unable to locate data on exactly how many students did this, CalMatters reports, “At the same time, the change has led families with resources… to find ways to help their kids get ahead in math, perpetuating some of the inequities the policy was meant to eliminate.”

Many OUSD high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but the policy where I work often requires students to take the general education class first before being allowed to enroll in an AP class. For instance, a student must take World History with the general education population, then AP World History the following year alongside the required U.S. History course. This means students who want more advanced coursework may miss out on electives, internships, or jobs they could otherwise do.

According to parents of students at Bishop O’Dowd, a private high school in Oakland with a $24,040 annual tuition, their children are assigned 1-4 hours of homework each night.

Jacob, This is very important coverage of a critical issue in the Oakland area. Thank you for your documentation and research.

Thank you Oakland Report. Consistently great reporting.