Op-Ed: Time to act on policy solutions for NJ students

Education leaders can now focus intensively on solutions to accelerate student learning and replicate the great work already underway across the state
Patricia Morgan, left, and Janellen Duffy

As more New Jersey students head back to in-person instruction and more staff receive vaccinations, health and safety rightly remains a top priority. At the same time, we’re also approaching a new inflection point where education leaders can focus intensively on solutions to accelerate student learning and replicate the great work already underway across the state.

In recent weeks, JerseyCAN released a study projecting the academic impact of the pandemic’s disruption on student academic growth in New Jersey. As with similar studies from across the country, the findings are bleak and the warnings dire, projecting grade-level proficiency for just one-third of students in English Language Arts and one-fourth in Math, with low-income Black and Latinx students falling even further behind. This information is critical in shining a light on the reality of the challenges we face so that we can confront them head-on. To do so, we must pivot to policy solutions and interventions to get our students back on track.

Our state leaders are already hard at work supporting students, families and educators. The Murphy administration’s efforts to close the digital divide and grants to address student learning loss and mental health are a promising start. Senate Education Chair Sen. Teresa Ruiz has demonstrated early and committed leadership to meet students’ needs by pushing to create equity-focused learning hubs or pods, to require robust statewide data collection and reporting and to bring attention to students’ mental health. Assembly Education Chairwoman Pamela Lampitt and her co-sponsors have also pushed to create a new grant program in the proposed bill A-5147 that would provide funds to schools to create or expand learning and support programs this summer and during the next school year with priority to low-income districts.

To build on these efforts and other promising strategies from across the country, JerseyCAN has released a new report, A Time to Act: A Framework to Accelerate Learning. This framework offers evidence-based strategies and policy recommendations to leverage the unprecedented federal stimulus funding — which totals over $3.9 billion to date — for an equitable educational recovery for all New Jersey students.

Main recommendations

Among several concrete policy recommendations included in our new report, most urgently, we recommend the following actions:

  • Gov. Phil Murphy and his team should create an interagency government commission in upcoming months and a stakeholder task force (as seen in Connecticut) to guide a collaborative statewide education recovery;
  • The New Jersey Department of Education should quickly develop robust guidance and trainings for districts (as seen in Louisiana) on strategies such as high-dosage tutoring and more intensive summer programming, as well as emerging best practices to support students’ social and emotional well-being and mental health;
  • The Legislature should finish bills in motion that Sen. Ruiz, Assemblywoman Lampitt and others have championed. These include bills that address learning pods, a grade retention option, grants for summer school and teacher residencies. And the Legislature should move quickly to adopt legislation that incentivizes innovative approaches to staffing and roles for educators as well as pilot programs on new school scheduling, extended school year and other areas;
  • District and school leaders should continue to mobilize quickly to offer intensive summer programming by leveraging new resources for promising programs (such as Cadence Learning and some of the recent programs that have been announced in Bridgeton and Little Egg Harbor), robust plans for fall 2021 with a focus on student and staff social and emotional well-being and individual student learning plans;
  • Parents and families should continue to seek out information and data on their children’s social-emotional and academic growth and engage in creating personalized learning plans for their students;
  • Philanthropists and funders should support and facilitate trainings for districts and schools by national and state experts who can provide detailed guidance on the effective use of federal stimulus funds.

We are not suggesting one-size-fits-all solutions, because we recognize that schools and districts are in various stages of educational recovery. This is why our focus is primarily on providing additional guidance and exemplars for replication and why pilot programs can be highly valuable at this stage.

So many challenges and unknowns have been thrown at students, educators and families over this past year. What’s exciting about the current phase we’re embarking on is the opportunity to replicate the innovations and best practices that are working across the country and right here in New Jersey.

While the path ahead will continue to be challenging, we are empowered with the solutions to navigate it successfully. We must act now to recover stronger for all New Jersey students.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight