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

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:

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.