September 6, 2023

Good Afternoon:

Thank you for the opportunity to share public comments here today and for ensuring that they are given to the acting commissioner and to the full body of the state board. My name is Paula White, and I am the Executive Director of JerseyCAN, a bi-partisan education research and advocacy organization founded in 2013. JerseyCAN is committed to ensuring that all students across the State have access to a high quality education.

In April of this year, the State Board of the New Jersey Department of Education (NJ DOE) made a presentation which proposed a restructuring of the NJSLS-ELA such that the state standards would include foundational skills in reading and writing. As delineated in the 32-slide presentation, the proposed additions encompassed:

  • Decoding and encoding words;
  • Analyzing word parts;
  • Reinforcing awareness of segments of sounds in speech and how they link to letters;
  • Developing reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension
  • Highlighting broad oral language skills.

After drawing attention to the reading problem in New Jersey and elevating the issue statewide, JerseyCAN was elated to see proposed standards in these areas of language skill since they align to the Science of Reading. This is what we support, not because it is the “flavor of the month”, but because dating back to at least 2000 when the National Reading Panel produced its findings, the evidence points to its worth and value for our children’s learning, and as such we have been campaigning to have it adopted in the state of New Jersey. We are a state that likes to lead, not follow, but here we find ourselves a lap behind the frontrunner states as diverse as Massachusetts and Mississippi that have adopted a Science of Reading approach. For clarity, a Science of Reading approach is grounded in instruction related to: phonemic awareness; phonics; fluency; vocabulary; and comprehension. The proposed standards revisions addressed several of these crucial areas.

However, in the four months since this presentation was delivered, there has been no further information provided to the public on the status of this proposal. Now, more than four months later, it is too late to petition the Board to move quickly to make these much-needed additions, but I am here today to implore the Board to wait no longer to do so because our children stands to benefit from an explicit, structured literacy approach which is what the proposed new standards address.

JerseyCAN’s latest report, “Leveraging Literacy: The Path to Education Recovery in New Jersey”, looks at the problem of the reading proficiency of New Jersey’s public school students, using the most recent data on 3rd grade reading. Only 42% of Grade 03 students are at or above “proficient” in reading. That number is sobering enough, but it is only the tip of the iceberg, as our report makes clear. In Camden, only 1 in 20 students are reading at grade level standards in 3rd grade. Similar results exist here in our state’s capital of Trenton. Even in our leafy suburbs, we see an achievement gulf – a term I coined to more accurately reflect the data – where Black children are reading at grade level at much lower rates than their white counterparts. Like all vexing problems, this is a multi-faceted problem but as stewards of education, we are called to impact the variables that we can control, and our approach to teaching reading is such a variable that rises to the top of the list.

I know that there are some among your ranks who will point to poverty as the most relevant variable in whether or not a child will read well, and I am not discounting poverty as a formidable challenge. It is. In fact, it is precisely why these standards are important to teach, so that children in their respective communities will be able to learn as a result of their instruction in school, and not despite the instruction they receive. You may wonder what I mean. Well, in my work as an education advocate, nonprofit executive leader and national policy expert, I encounter people from all walks of life, and I have never been in a room where someone has not talked about themselves, a relative or a friend who struggled to read. Sometimes people pull me aside to mention this in hushed tones, other times they yell it passionately from public microphones. Multi-millionaire charitable benefactors. Middle income moms. McDonald’s workers. The only difference between these three profiles is access to extracurricular help which is what children of wealth typically receive when their school’s education program is not meeting their needs. And so when these children access outside help in structured literacy tutoring programs like the Orton Gillingham approach and later on succeed, the standards and curriculum deficit is masked, the school takes credit for the student’s success, and the problem persists. This is the situation we must change because children living in poverty do not have access to private tutoring to plug the holes created by their in-school education. School is the only chance they have.

With national data comparisons, the egg on New Jersey’s face remains. Within the past decade, we have seen 4th grade Hispanic students in the state of Mississippi score higher in reading than Hispanic 4th graders in New Jersey. With all due respect and no offense at all aimed at that southern state, come on…our Jersey pride should not allow us to accept this quietly.

What’s wrong with taking an eclectic approach to this work of teaching reading in our schools? Apart from the fact that the outcomes speak for themselves, let me paint a clearer picture for you. In the coming weeks in classrooms across the state, children will encounter words on a page that they have never seen before. They will tell the teacher that in a bid for help. Some teachers will respond by saying, “Look at the picture to help you”, and the child will guess – “Rock? Pebble? Stone?” Three distinctly different words that could arguably all be used to describe the picture on the page. This is one example of a failed strategy being taught to children which serves to hurt, not help them. There are too many possibilities in our rich language and too much vocabulary to know to ask a child to wade around in this sea of ambiguity. Another child on another day will encounter the same problem as they stumble onto an unfamiliar word and a teacher will tell them to look at the first letter of the word and think about what would make sense in that context. And so the child might say, “Tia had a nice room.” Sure, that would make sense but in fact the word on the page said, “neat” so the complete sentence would be, “Tia had a neat room.” Two completely different meanings and a resultant fostering of confusion on the child’s part not due to their own fault, but because of the use of improper teacher guidance. The proposed standards from April 2023 lead students to decode words – pulling them apart, phoneme by phoneme, and analyzing their units of meaning like prefixes and suffixes, and yes, “sounding it out”. The goal of reading is not to sound out words. The goal of reading is to understand words and make sense of them, to glean what is being asked in a mathematics word problem, to be able to laugh out loud at the humor in a self-selected book, to be enlightened by the understanding of a scientific concept, or to read a primary source in history and understand the gist right away.

This is what is at stake when we drag our heels in approving appropriate standards for our kids. Good teaching of those standards must still occur, of course, and many other things must happen in the infrastructure of a school to make things work. And indeed, curriculum is a local decision in the state of New Jersey, but our state’s standards form the foundation upon which curriculum is built. So first things first. Please pass new and improved standards to lay the first rock down to build this house.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I would be happy to answer to follow up in person or by any other medium to collaborate with you, inform you, learn from you about your efforts, or answer any questions you may have. All I ask is that you remember that our children do not have the luxury of time. Standards delayed will be standards denied and a missed opportunity for learning for our children.

Paula White is the executive director of JerseyCAN.


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