Op-Ed: Addressing Inequities in NJ’s Public Schools Is Moral Imperative

Lamont O. Repollet | August 5, 2019 | Opinion
Education commissioner says state education officials continuously question whether policies and practices create opportunities, not unfair barriers to student learning

Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet
What does educational equity look like?

In an education context, it means understanding that each child has different needs. Each child may require different supports to have equitable and fair access to education and career opportunities. We unfortunately also see inequity throughout our nation — in the form of unnecessary barriers to our students’ learning.

For instance, some families lack access to high-quality, free pre-school education, while some older students and even adults do not have clear on-ramps to viable careers. Yet other students’ academic success may be stunted by social-emotional issues, trauma, or they may find themselves to be victims of explicit or implicit biases or lowered expectations.

As a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, and now, as New Jersey’s education commissioner, I strongly believe public schools have a moral imperative to address inequities that create barriers to student success. As educators, it’s our responsibility to continually analyze what our students need and to figure out how we can best provide them equitable access to their necessary supports for learning.

At the New Jersey Department of Education, we are focused on providing equity in action. We have set a goal to ensure “all students have equitable access to resources, quality educational programming, and post-secondary opportunities.” We understand that achieving equity across the state is a moonshot. However, by changing and evolving our mindset, we are continuously asking ourselves, “how are our supports to schools and districts empowering them to meet their individual students’ needs?” and “how do we ensure our policies and practices create opportunities, not unfair barriers to student learning?” For these reasons, I believe education equity is a continuous cycle of improvement, a motion, an action and a mindset.

We’ve already begun this work, by focusing on expanding high-quality pre-school for all children; emphasizing workplace readiness programs like Career and Technical education, or CTE, which allows interested high school students to receive hands-on work experience in areas like manufacturing and hospitality; and promoting a whole-child view of education by prioritizing approaches like Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs that give children the skills needed to manage emotions, set goals and make responsible decisions.

Having courageous conversations

Other examples include schools implementing LGBTQ policies and offering instruction that adapts to situational trauma that students may be experiencing.

Schools in the Garden State are working to ensure that students of color are not disproportionally represented in special education programming and, conversely, that they have access to gifted and talented programs. Schools are having courageous conversations about race and bias; developing equity councils and teams; implementing culturally relevant curricula; exploring alternatives to traditional disciplinary practices; and implementing culturally responsive teaching.

In New Jersey, we are modeling and promoting equitable practices by supporting our educators to make sure they have the instructional tools and systems our students need. Working with educators across the state, we are focused on continually improving standards-aligned teaching and assessing, strengthened through data literacy. We are taking actions to combat the inequities we see across the nation.

Our agency hosted more than 1,400 educators from around the state at our “Equity for All” conference last week. Experts touched on issues such as supporting LGBTQ students; identifying students who experience trauma in their lives; recognizing implicit bias in the classroom; engaging disengaged students; and ensuring disadvantaged children and students of color are represented in gifted and Advanced Placement programs.

Our New Jersey schools rank second best in the nation. However, unless equity remains first and foremost in our goals and in our actions, we leave a wealth of untapped potential and strength behind. Please join me in ensuring all of our students have fair and equitable access to opportunities that enable them to reach their greatest potential. Only then will our education systems be what they ought to be.