The “Double Edged Sword” in OUSD and It’s Racialized Impact on Reading; What’s in the NAACP’s Complaint Against the District

Oakland is full of performance politics, that go nowhere except to the egos of the speechmakers. Meanwhile, the Oakland NAACP has been a steadfast ally for Black children and the issues that actually matter to Black families, like literacy.  In K-8, 18.6% of Black kids can read on grade level in OUSD, compare that to the 73% of White students that can.  So, its not that we can’t teach kids to read, or that kids can’t learn to read.  We have a system that very successfully serves some children consistently, and disserves other students equally consistently.

These patterns and practices and the lack of real plan or research-based curriculum to teach reading, form the basis of the NAACP’s complaint.   

“Our students are not receiving the free and appropriate education they need to successfully navigate college, careers, societal institutions, or opportunities to be of service to the Oakland community. Our Black, Latino and Pacific Islander students in the Oakland Unified School District (“OUSD”) are four times more likely to be reading multiple years below grade level than our white students (Figure 1). Without the ability to read, they are denied learning and denied the opportunity to identify, cultivate, and leverage their talents in whichever way they choose. The failure of OUSD to educate our students has resulted in reduced earning potential, racialized health disparities and communities vulnerable to gentrification.”  That is the second paragraph of the Oakland NAACP’s administrative complaint against OUSD.

Moving Beyond Words to Action

We are great at proclamations in Oakland, not so great on actions to make them real.  We talk about a district where “every student thrives” but we know that’s a lie.  The vast majority of Black and Brown students in OUSD can’t read, and based on  the research, data, and practices of the district—they wont be able to read when they are supposed to graduate.

This is largely the result of their experiences in OUSD.  As the complaint states—many children are faced with a “double edged sword.”  They are not taught the foundations of reading and simultaneously never given access to grade level content.  As the complaint so eloquently puts it,

“The district has promoted the use of Leveled Reading Groups in which students were regularly denied access to grade level text, content, and materials. Indeed, many students went entire years without being allowed to read a book or engage with the designated content for their grade level. Moreover, the author of OUSD’s previously adopted core curriculum, Units of Study, now acknowledges its inadequate support for students in need of foundational skills. The double edged sword of choosing a curriculum with limited foundational reading skill development while simultaneously restricting access to grade level text to students with grade level reading skills, has created racialized and economic impacts which privilege those with the resources and advocacy to supplement the development of reading skill.”

And they critiqued the district for its failure to properly screen students for reading challenges, as required by law.

“Additionally, the district is lacking in overall compliance with AB1369 which ensures that all students referred for testing be screened for phonological processing challenges. There’s a lack of training and awareness related to the law and its implications.”

These practices and polices play out in wats that amplify and reinforce our current inequities.  The complaint outlines the broad literacy data and some even more troubling subgroup statistics.

Figure 2. SBAC scores of 3rd-5th grade levels by ethnicity, 2018-19.

“Moreover, the educational data for Black male youth in particular paints a similarly unequal picture, based on the following data collected by OUSD:

  • For every White male that was suspended in OUSD, 14 African American males were suspended.
  • 58.6% of African American male elementary school students (3rd, 4th and 5th grade) were evaluated as “Multiple Years Below Grade Level,” while only 16.3% of White male elementary school students were evaluated as “Multiple Years Below Grade Level.”
  • When it came to the percent of 8th grade students who were ready for high school, four out of five students or 80.9% of African American boys were assessed as not ready, while 47.7% of White males were assessed as not ready.”

So, we know that OUSD is not properly teaching reading, or using a curriculum that support early literacy, and that they aren’t properly screening students for learning differences.  And we also know the horrendous outcomes that these policies and practices contribute to.  So what should OUSD do?  Thankfully the NAACP has some answers.

The Relief Requested

“Whereas the OUSD Strategic Plan 2020-23 has identified that the first priority for cultivating thriving students is a citywide literacy campaign, with a focus on improved early literacy, petitioners request that the agency fulfill their legal duty and this district-wide vision by taking the following actions to address the previously stated problems (details for each are found under Relief Requested):

  1. Adopt a detailed district Administrative Regulation covering reading and literacy
  2. Create a cabinet-level position to address literacy for students from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade
  3. Create guidelines for the district’s human resources department to recruit and prioritize hiring educators trained in evidence-based reading methodologies
  4. Provide instructional staff, including teachers, principals, coaches, and paraprofessionals, ongoing access to literacy training and materials which support the neurodiversity of the district’s students
  5. Create, publish, and distribute to internal and external stakeholders, an ELA skill-based scope and sequence for transitional kindergarten through fifth grade that includes the timing and sequence of intervention, and allows for academic freedom to reach learning targets
  6. Allocate additional resources in support of the district’s citywide literacy campaign, with a focus on resources supporting students reading below grade level
  7. Implement testing to screen students between kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia
  8. Cease and desist the practice of denying students the opportunity to read grade level books through a modern form of tracking known as Leveled Reading.”

There is nothing more important than the schools teaching children to read.  There is a fair amount of settled science on this and also significant research around what works and what doesn’t.  It is up to us to make sure that that happens.  And I thank the Oakland NAACP for taking the lead on the issues that matter to our families.

Please get involved and support this effort, you can  Email questions, join the NAACP (branch 1051), read FULCRUM’s newsletters (subscribe here).

Our babies need you, systems and outcomes wont change until we make them change.

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