By Laura Waters
JerseyCAN pulls no punches in its latest report, “Leveraging Literacy: The Path to Education Recovery in New Jersey.” Looking closely at reading levels of New Jersey third-graders, analysts decry the Department of Education’s “reticence” in implementing the National Reading Panel’s recommendations “in any meaningful way,” borne out by our inability “to withstand the pandemic’s assault on education.”
In particular, the report analyzes reading outcomes in seven districts: Asbury Park, Newark, Paterson, Camden, Milburn, Jersey City, and Atlantic City. (Millburn? Yes, because Asian and white students there thrive academically but Black students don’t.)
First, a peek at the districts plumbed by JerseyCAN and then their recommendations, which would require the Murphy Administration to engage in “honest talk, transparency, and an urgency to tackle the nuts and bolts of action.”
“ As we begin another school year without a real plan, [the report] showcases the alarming data that currently reflects the state of literacy education in New Jersey,” explains Executive Director Paula White. She continues, “we assert that given the low and declining reading capacity of our K-12 learners, an overhaul in reading instruction is the best hope we have to recover from the learning that has been lost. Make no mistake, the data is clear, and so are the solutions. After an unacceptable delay in releasing the full battery of the NJSLA scores and not implementing the National Reading Panel’s recommendations, we challenge the powerbrokers to join forces with us to act with bold decision-making and specific substantive solutions.”
The School Districts:
In Camden district schools, only 11% of third-graders show mastery in reading, a benchmark for future academic success. (According to the old saw, until third grade students learn to read but in fourth grade they read to learn.) It’s worse for Black students; among that group only five percent read proficiently in Camden. From the report: “no amount of economic investment in local communities will be able to compensate for such profound lack of preparedness of a populace as they will be unable to capitalize on any opportunities secured for the region.”
Speaking of economic investment, how about Asbury Park, one of the seven districts studied by JerseyCAN? According to data from the 2022 spring standardized tests, only 7.6% of Black Asbury Park third-graders read proficiently; 13.7% Hispanic third-graders do. Perhaps JerseyCAN focused on this tiny district as a proofpoint because, while sufficient money is essential, funding doesn’t solve all educational ills. Asbury Park no longer takes the prize for the most overfunded district in New Jersey but it still has “an outsized per pupil allocation compared to most districts and are the highest in their peer group at $27,977 per student.”
Newark, our largest district, is much in the news for its low student achievement and, indeed, JerseyCAN notes that a news story describes “a dire literacy problem in each of Newark’s wards.” Only 19% of third-graders read at grade level. From the report:
“The literacy challenges of Newark’s students are profound and a sizeable number of new teachers are hired by the Newark Board of Education each year to meet this need. In 2021, Newark hired 350 new teachers, a number that ballooned to 600 new hires in 2022. These teachers were sourced significantly from teacher pipeline partnerships that Newark has forged with New Jersey’s universities, including Montclair State University and Rutgers University-Newark. Unfortunately, a recent report from the National Center for Teacher Quality found that New Jersey’s teacher preparation programs are among the worst in the nation for providing teacher education aligned with the Science of Reading.”
(For more on the NCTQ report, see here.)
While Asian students in this 25,000-student low-income district do comparatively well (35% of third-graders read proficiently), only 15% districtwide read at grade-level. “This finding arguably suggests that the scope and focus of instructional attention is a more notable problem than the poverty levels of students in the district.”
The report notes that Jersey City is the most expensive city in America to rent a hom yet only one in five Black third-graders read at grade-level. “While Jersey City’s 3rd grade student performance in reading is not the worst in the state, African-American, Hispanic, English Learners, and economically disadvantaged students all fall below the state average in reading proficiency.”
Interestingly, the report includes Millburn, one of the highest-income districts in the state where the median house price is $1.7 million. While 95% of Asian students and 75% of white students read proficiently in third grade, among Black students the achievement levels drop dramatically to 31%. As such, Milburn is an emblem of the “achievement gulf” between white and Black student outcomes.
Throughout the report, individual district profiles are interwoven with data-driven strategies the Murphy Administration could implement to improve student proficiency in reading. After all, data doesn’t matter if we don’t have a plan in place to remedy problems. Here are a few of the recommendations that a more responsive Education Department could easily implement:
- -Comprehensive Science of Reading (SOR) training afforded to K-3 reading teachers, and in more abbreviated fashion to teachers of other subjects and grades.
- Teacher preparation programs for pre-service teachers in New Jersey’s colleges and universities that are fully aligned with the Science of Reading.
- Universal screeners to identify students’ entry point along the continuum of reading, and subsequent assessment for learning touchpoints to plan for continuous improvement.
- Notification to parents of students identified with reading deficiencies, to facilitate plans for support.
- School district adoption of high quality instructional and curricular materials that align with the Science of Reading.
- Effective resource allocation for equitable systems so that financial investments will not be disconnected from student learning but rather yield student improvement.
Concludes White, “an overhaul of reading instruction in New Jersey is the best hope we have to recover learning that was lost.”
Will the Murphy Administration step up?