By Tina Kelley | NJ Advance Media for

In previous years, teacher Lovina Shahid had difficulty helping her first graders learn vowel sounds. So, she read up on evidence-based reading programs, hoping to help the students, many of whom spoke Spanish at home. When her district adopted a new curriculum last year based on what is known as the Science of Reading, her peers were skeptical, but not for long.

“It was very exciting to see students able to distinguish between different vowel sounds and letter combinations,” Shahid said of her students at School 21 in Passaic. At the end of the year, she loved seeing that they were confident readers, looking forward to reading their new books.

“Absolutely, I think they made more progress,” she said.

In a report to be released Thursday, a statewide education advocacy group calls for a “reading revolution” so more students can make such progress. The report seeks leadership from the Governor, the Legislature, and the Department of Education to ensure students receive the best possible help in learning to read.

The report, “Leveraging Literacy – The Path to Education Recovery in New Jersey,” analyzes six districts — Atlantic City, Newark, Camden, Milburn, Jersey City, and Asbury Park — and their students’ disappointing performance on recent statewide tests.

“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” because of the pandemic,” said Paula White, the report’s author and the executive director of JerseyCAN, which advocates for high-quality public schools for all children.

The New Jersey Student Learning Assessments, taken in the spring, showed that only 42.4% of the state’s third graders read at grade level. A stark achievement gap exists among students in all grades.

“New Jersey families are fighting a dire and clear challenge — far too many of our kids cannot read, and for many who can, they are reading despite their school’s teaching, not because of it,” White said.

The report calls for using teaching materials that research has found to be effective. While many states have passed laws to require such reading instruction, New Jersey’s system has been outdated and inefficient, White said, adding that the state does not require teachers to receive training on how to teach students to read.

The report also calls for the state’s educator preparation programs to instruct future teachers on using the Science of Reading. A 2021 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality placed New Jersey among 17 states where educator preparation programs use inadequate tests to measure teacher candidates on how they teach students to read.

JerseyCAN also recommends early and frequent screenings for all children to assess their reading abilities and that schools notify parents when their children are behind.

Each school district chooses a reading curriculum or writes its own. Often, White said they use the instructional materials based on whatever company gives the best sales pitch.

“There is no guidance that is coming to say, this kind of curriculum is superior,” she said.

The state Department of Education is updating its reading standards this year after a listening tour, but the new information incorporating the Science of Reading has not been well publicized, White said. She noted that if districts can invest in effective reading instruction, it could be an ideal use of remaining federal COVID relief funds.

The Department of Education did not return messages seeking comment.

But Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he looked forward to reviewing the report’s findings and discussing literacy instruction.

“New Jersey’s latest reading test scores and the widening achievement gaps those scores revealed are extremely concerning,” he said, “and I’m certainly open to exploring new methods to identify and assist New Jersey students who are struggling with reading and literacy.”

Christi Peace, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said, “The Murphy Administration shares the goal of improving literacy among New Jersey students and welcomes collaboration on this critical endeavor.” She mentioned his administration’s two new training programs for teachers to bolster literacy in elementary schools and additional funding in the state’s 2024 budget.

According to the report, the pandemic created a “natural experiment” to determine the best ways to help students catch up after months away from the classroom.

In comparing the six districts, the report details how Millburn in Essex County, one of the state’s wealthiest communities, has “an achievement gulf” — only 30.8% of its Black third graders are reading at grade level, compared to 47.9% of its students with disabilities, 75% of white students, and 84.9% of its English language learners. JerseyCAN calls for parental notification of reading problems, even in high-performing districts.

JerseyCAN notes that more money in a district’s coffers doesn’t always translate to better instruction. Asbury Park, for instance, has the highest per-pupil funding among its peer districts in the state, but only 9.5% of its third graders are proficient readers. The group said districts’ spending should be monitored, and that it would help identify those that spend resources unwisely.

The report cited encouraging moves in other states: New York City gave its schools three reading programs to choose from, all of them evidence-based, and a Massachusetts law went into effect last month mandating that schools notify parents when students have reading deficiencies.

And it identifies a handful of solutions: require and monitor evidence-based reading instruction, train teachers on how to use the Science of Reading curriculum, give teachers stipends for attending such training like Massachusetts does, make sure districts have money to purchase required curriculum, and pass laws requiring educator preparation programs to teach candidates to use the curriculum.

Back in Passaic’s 19 elementary schools, which adopted new, evidence-based curriculum last year, “We definitely are seeing the achievement gap close,” said Lisa Rowbotham, director of Elementary and Secondary Education for the district. While teachers were initially concerned about how the new and rigorous program might be a stretch for their classes, she said students’ vocabularies have increased, along with their level of discourse and their state test scores.

Using its funds and COVID relief money, the district worked with TNTP, a national education nonprofit addressing educational inequity, to choose new reading materials. Carly Glazer Newman, a consultant with the firm, noted that students couldn’t engage with strong material with the old curriculum.

“The moment we started giving them those opportunities, we’re seeing that they absolutely can hit that bar and reach those great heights,” she said.


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