“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
Unless we commit to common sense changes in New Jersey’s K12 education landscape in 2023, Charles Dickens’ classic statement will continue to embody the uneven distribution of academic achievement in our state, one where opportunities abound for some while dwindling rapidly for others.
As we look to a New Year, let’s all pause to reflect that the most gripping post-pandemic data point revealed is that the wealthiest among us gained even greater fortunes during our planet’s gravest hour, with the world’s wealthiest men literally doubling their fortunes during the very same period of time that millions of regular folks lost their jobs, their businesses and even their lives.
This ironic principle of “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer” has translated starkly to education in our state. It is why we must throw our weight behind affording all of our children the education they deserve — and the gateway to that education begins with literacy.
Going into 2023, we know about half our state’s students — 49% of our state’s elementary and middle school students — are at grade-level reading proficiency. This number is simply far too low and is a warning sign of the great challenge we face in the years to come. But what is most sobering is when you look beyond the state averages, the challenge is far greater. For example, in a city like Newark, our state’s largest school district, only 27% of students are reaching grade-level reading proficiency.
This unfortunate reality is being mirrored for pockets of students across New Jersey and must set the stage for our most critical moral imperative in 2023 — teaching every child in New Jersey to read well, the best way we know how.
Addressing the hard challenges and contrasts that we have seen throughout our state in 2022 means putting children’s needs first — not through our words and rhetoric, but through our actions and policies. Our children’s futures hinge on our commitment to creating a year ahead where putting children first is not a catchphrase or a platitude but a mandate to which we adhere.
Looking back at my years as a teacher, I can remember one of my least proud moments in the classroom. At one point, perhaps because of frustration or exhaustion, I found myself minimizing science instruction because, truthfully, I struggled with the labor-intensive challenge of making hands-on experiments come alive. However, after seeing how many gaps my students had in science compared to my colleague’s class next door, I began preparing and delivering better science lessons, which of course, is what I should have been doing all along.
Connecting this personal experience to our current statewide challenge in literacy, we must take the same students-first stance to help more of our children to read well, so we can give our children a fighting chance to succeed.
Each of us must realize that teaching during just normal times is challenging and tiring, and right now, we need to do more. Specifically, we must find more ways to support our teachers in 2023. We need to ensure each teacher has the tools, support, and training to address this critical moment and to ensure every classroom is positioned to go far beyond comfort zones and not allow frustration or exhaustion to create roadblocks.
We must also remember that many solutions to our education challenges are being addressed in New Jersey at the local level, and it is incumbent that we begin promoting and embracing those specific public schools showing strong results.
For example, public schools, like those in the Uncommon Schools network in Newark, are offering impactful results to address our state’s literacy issues. North Star Academy’s recently-released NJSLA scores exceed New Jersey’s state average of reading proficiency by 15% while also serving a population where virtually all students (87%) are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Public schools, like Uncommon, which play an outsized part in the civic enterprise of preparing children to lead New Jersey’s future in adulthood, should be consulted, heralded, and allowed to serve more children.
It is also time to ensure that the fate of our children is no longer solely defined by Trenton and our state’s special interests. Our requisite for building and defining statewide learning strategies must be based on proven outcomes, and our children’s future should not be tethered to instructional approaches that are ideologically dubious at best and harmful at worst.
It is true that many children will learn to read in whatever way we teach them, but for a significant number of children, only the practice-proven methods aligned to our brain’s most prevalent processing functions will do.
When the recent pandemic hit our shores and ravaged our most vulnerable populations, we instituted various methods and mandates to address a dire situation, even as we built the proverbial plane we were attempting to fly. With reading, we don’t have to flounder in an air of uncertainty because we have the benefit of decades of research establishing the superior value of a scientific approach – paying attention to the connections between words and sounds instead of using strategies like guessing and picture-watching to make meaning of texts.
We do not have the luxury of experimentation, so our legislative process must do its job to make that clear.
With New Jersey’s reading scores now in, we know that solving our state’s most malleable educational challenge is necessary for the value of each instructional dollar and each instructional hour to grow. Doing more of something out of habit or simply because we are infatuated with a particular approach won’t get us to the promised land. Only promoting what works actually will.
The fact is that quality literacy instruction is the linchpin variable for our children’s learning. For 2023, let’s give it the focus and boost it deserves.
Paula White is a former school teacher and currently serves as executive director of JerseyCAN.