Oakland Unity Wins the Numbers Game

Math scores go from 20th to 99th percentile, thanks to a teacher’s experiment with Khan Academy.


Oakland Unity math teacher Peter McIntosh reviews the Khan Academy work of a student.

Photo by Chris Duffey

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When Oakland Unity High’s math scores were consistently ranked in the bottom 20 percent in California, teacher Peter McIntosh and the rest of his department decided that it was time to make some changes.

A small independent charter school of 310 students in East Oakland, Unity found that students weren’t learning math concepts in middle school, such as decimals and fractions that are gatekeepers to understanding algebra. The department found that many of the students getting good grades had been mentally “checking out” while working on problems and generally encountered apathy toward the math work.

But most importantly, the department figured out that many of the students with bad math test scores were copying each other’s homework—which was also the reason McIntosh turned to Khan Academy’s digital curriculum.

Founded by former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, the Khan Academy is an online curriculum that teaches via video and includes a web app that randomly generates problems, letting students practice the concepts. It’s free for teachers and students to use, and currently about 10 million people are actively learning math, chemistry, physics, biology, and a host of other subjects online.

On Khan’s back-end for teachers, there’s a wealth of assessment data available to help understand what their students are struggling with and excelling at. And because of the way Khan’s system is set up, it’s impossible for students to cheat on their homework.

“Khan’s system randomizes questions that you get, which is a great tool for kids to not cheat on their homework,” said Maureen Suhendra of the Khan Academy. “It’s personalized to each student using it, and all the algorithms on the back-end tailor the experience to your unique understanding of math. And teachers have transparency into what students are getting right and wrong.”

Implementing Khan’s digital learning tool also led the math department to another important insight: that they needed to teach less and motivate more. It sounds unconventional, but by getting the students to get interested in their work and to take responsibility, the Unity teachers produced results.

Photo by Chris Duffey

"It's not teaching; it's getting them motivated," McIntosh said.

“They haven’t been interested in receiving the content,” McIntosh said. “It’s not teaching; it’s getting them motivated. That’s the question, getting them interested, and that was everything. We changed the issue.”

Back in 2010, before the math department overhauled its teaching methods, California’s standardized assessment ranked Unity in the 20th percentile. After implementation in 2011, Unity’s test scores jumped to the 76th percentile, and for 2013 rank at the 99th percentile, according to McIntosh.

That’s a dramatic jump, to be sure, and unusual in comparison with other schools in Oakland, according to California Department of Education records. Most schools fluctuate slightly from year to year, gaining or dropping less than 10 percent.

“I would expect we would get much more pushback or outcry from parents,” Principal Sam Brewer said. “Sometimes it would look like a math class, but it’s a very different—even controversial—method of teaching.”

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