What is Gov. Phil Murphy’s Department of Education doing about the pandemic learning loss in this state, exactly?

Very little, considering the crisis we face. Just look at our fourth graders: 50 percent need “strong support” in math, according to the state tests given in the Fall.

Peel that back and it represents 70 percent of Latino kids and 74 percent of Black kids in New Jersey falling into the lowest category. That should “get everybody out of their seats,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz, former chair of the education committee and now Senate Majority Leader, told a panel of education experts this week: What we are looking at is a potential pipeline to a lifetime of lost wages, lower quality of life, or a direct doorway into the criminal justice system, she said.

“I don’t know what else I can say, to tell people something very courageous has got to happen.”

But the state Department of Education seems to be largely abdicating its role, not showing up to a public hearing on the issue, and not providing any explanation for that. Why?

New Jersey is behind other states on this, and has done virtually nothing to track the $2.8 billion in federal dollars going directly to schools that can be used for learning loss. Is that money being wasted? Are some districts finding effective uses for it that offer lessons for others? Is the money spent on the kids most in need?

The state did issue some guidance on best practices in June, but what we really need is a robust plan that looks at the impact of the interventions taken so far, has additional recommendations and timelines for getting students back on track. What does success look like?

“Do we want 50 percent of our students to be back on grade level in two years?” wonders policy watchdog Patricia Morgan, a former assistant state commissioner of education. “In three years?”

Instead, we seem to be throwing the money out and hoping for the best. And If there’s anything we have learned over the last century in New Jersey, that’s not a smart approach.

One thing New Jersey has done well is highlight the importance of using data by requiring districts to identify their specific needs, says Nicholas Munyan-Penney of Education Reform Now, who co-authored a report published this week comparing state spending plans. But there’s no systemic compiling or prioritization of those needs, he said; like many states, we’re just passing this money through to districts.

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