JerseyCAN–Once Again–Fills the Vacuum Left By Murphy Administration’s Education Department

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Yesterday the Star-Ledger published a long interview with Patricia Morgan, executive director of the education policy watchdog group JerseyCAN and a former assistant commissioner at the state Department of Education (DOE). Here are the key points made by Morgan as her non-profit, an arm of 50CAN (whose president in New Jersey resident Derrell Bradford), continues to fill the vacuum left by the Murphy Administration’s somnolent Department of Education.

One quick example: NJ received $2.8 billion for K-12 education from the Biden Administration’s federal rescue package, intended to address learning loss through targeted interventions, close the digital divide, and equip schools with updated HVAC and ventilation systems. In order to implement some element of accountability, the NJ DOE is supposed to track how each school district uses the money. But when then-Senate Education Chair Teresa Ruiz (she’s now Majority Leader) convened a meeting with stakeholders to discuss strategy after state assessments revealed, for example, that 49.3% of fourth graders scored in the lowest category in math along with 41.5% in reading. (JerseyCAN’s own assessment is that only 1 in 4 students are projected to be on grade level in math, and only 1 in 3 in reading), no one from the DOE  bothered to show up.

Ruiz commented afterwards, “there is no plan currently to deal with the educational pandemic that has been looming and … coming to a crash here in the state of New Jersey.”

JerseyCAN to the rescue! Here are excerpts from the interview (with questions modified):

Given the extent of unfinished learning, what should parents do?

They should absolutely ask their schools about the Start Strong data [the state assessments given in September] and what they should be doing to get students back on grade level. Ask teachers: Where is the biggest area my student needs to work on? Math? Reading? Writing? Pick one area, at least, where you as a parent are going to lean in and try and support your student. Also ask, what should my student be able to do in this subject by the end of the year? What’s the pathway for that? For example, I think by the end of first grade, students should be able to do double-digit addition. Do you think your child is on track toward reaching that milestone?

What should the state be doing since you say we still don’t know what the DOE’s plan is to address learning loss?

My question is, now that we know a majority of students are behind, how are we working together across all 600 school districts to make sure we are making meaningful progress? What is the state’s plan? And what’s the objective measure of progress? Do we want 50 percent of our students to be back on grade level in two years? In three years?

What are New Jersey schools doing with the billions in federal funding they’ve gotten to address student needs?

They are starting to implement their own programs to help with learning loss, like summer school, kindergarten bootcamps, or tutoring. That’s where the state also needs to be tracking how schools are spending this money. The state Legislature put in language that required the Department of Education to track how schools are spending the money and whether there is academic growth from the spending of those dollars.

I would love to hear what the state’s plan is for tracking these federal funds and weighing whether schools are really being effective in spending them. This is not just to hold districts accountable, as much as it is to say, what resources do you need to implement your plans?…Without having a plan and some coordinated effort to incentivize these resources, it’s hard to know whether the problem for a district is poor planning, poor finances, or some other issue impeding student academic growth.
I asked the state Department of Education why nobody showed up at a recent legislative hearing to discuss learning loss but haven’t gotten an answer. What’s your reaction?
I would love to see the state leading a conversation about what our education recovery looks like – bringing together all the stakeholders to create our plan with tools, best practices and objective measures of progress, so that we as a state can track whether our time, our federal resources and our efforts are being effective at getting students back on track.
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