[New Jersey – October 17, 2022] On Monday, October 17th, Paula White, Executive Director of JerseyCAN, will join other education activists and policy experts in testifying to the New Jersey Assembly’s Education Committee regarding learning loss, which has severely affected every classroom in New Jersey since the first outbreak of COVID.
On Sunday, NJ.com published an op-ed on the subject, which can be viewed here.
The following is Ms. White’s Monday testimony to the Assembly’s Education Committee.
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Thank you for the opportunity to testify today about an accelerated student learning approach to address learning recovery in New Jersey. My name is Paula White, and my career as an educator spans more than 2 decades, from my start as a classroom teacher to sitting on the editorial board of a journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English; assuming public school leadership; serving as an appointed member of the New Jersey Council for Young Children; and leading school improvement for public schools in our state. I am now the Executive Director of JerseyCAN, which is a bi-partisan education research and advocacy organization entering its 10th year of operation. JerseyCAN has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to ensuring that all students across the State have access to high-quality education options.
JerseyCAN’s 2021 report, A Time to Act: A Framework to Accelerate Learning, speaks to the promise and possibility of accelerating student learning, built around 5 core areas upon which I will succinctly expound. This framework has proven to be fertile ground for accelerating student learning prior to the onset of the pandemic and is more relevant now than ever before.
Student and Family Engagement:
During the earliest days of the pandemic, families and educators were thrust into close bidirectional relationships, which entailed educators entering students’ residences each day and parents and caregivers watching teachers teach in virtual classrooms. This unprecedented access to homes and to the culture and curriculum of schools made it clear that students must feel seen and safe to learn and also that the realities of home life add a layer to students’ socioemotional needs that may not have been sufficiently acknowledged before.
In the world of real estate, the mantra is “Location, location, location!” but in the universe of schools, in order to accelerate student learning, the focus must be, “Connection, connection, connection!” Schools must connect with families to hear their concerns and needs and to ensure that parents fully understand school success benchmarks and where their children stand. Digital literacy and digital access will enable this on platforms such as Zoom so that parents can meet with a teacher from the kitchen table at home, not just in the teacher’s classroom at school. Also, students must learn in classrooms conducive to protecting their mental health, and schools must clear pathways to services for students with identified mental health needs and coordinate the delivery of such services, as needed, with parents.
High quality, Inclusive Curriculum, Instruction and Training:
Evidence-based curricular strategies and programs should be vetted through disciplined guidance provided by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). Strategies outside of the regular school day hold great potential, but they cannot replace quality core instruction, and a plan for the professional learning necessary to deliver such instruction should be present. Whether pushing for experiential learning opportunities, in-class support for English learners or reading instruction framed around the science of reading, our curricular and instructional choices cannot be haphazard.
NJ.com recently published an essay that I wrote discussing the science of reading legislation and/or policies that have been passed in more than two dozen states and the District of Columbia. As in the case of Mississippi, which has moved up several rankings in education since its science of reading legislation was adopted, the benefits of such legislation are clear. I am making the case in that essay, and today before this committee, that New Jersey should follow suit to create parameters around literacy instruction to amplify the most fundamental skill of all – learning how to read.
Effective Resource Allocation for Equitable Systems:
$2,766,529,533 in American Rescue Plan ESSER funds were awarded to the state of New Jersey. This influx of federal funds provides an opportunity for our school districts to make bold investments in the futures of their students. To accelerate learning, proper funding oversight must occur, and given the staggered nature of disbursement of these funds, district and state spending must be regularly audited.
Under the CARES act, ESSER I funding was available until September 30, 2022. Now that the window of use is closed, we should evaluate if there are residual funds and identify the reasons they were not spent and where funds were used, we must interrogate how such usage aligned with the goals of learning acceleration. For ESSER II funding, a $30M mental health services grant was set aside. The pandemic has taken a quantifiable toll on students’ mental health, so as long as New Jersey’s students stand to benefit from mental health services, no available dollars should be left unspent. And a Learning Acceleration Grant sets aside funding for programs with demonstrated records of success as well as for related professional learning for educators. We must monitor this closely because without proper review to ensure that programs meet an evidence-based bar, these funds will be effectively squandered.