What REALLY Happened At Monday’s Statehouse Hearing on Learning Loss and Testing? Not What You Think.

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I’ve always been a fan of NJ Spotlight, the online news platform founded by John Mooney in 2009, and, in part, it’s personal: when I was first starting out John gave me my first break with a monthly column. 

Yet I am put off by NJ Spotlight News’ video coverage of Monday’s State Assembly’s Education Committee’s hearing, as well as the education section’s constant echo of NJEA talking points.

Let’s start with this: Every broadcast of NJ Spotlight News  begins with, “Funding for NJ Spotlight News is provided by members of the New Jersey Education Association, making public schools great for every child.” That’s fine (although we can quibble over whether 91% of Newark students failing math signifies great schools for every child).  NJEA is a major sponsor of a wide assortment of groups—although, shockingly, not NJ Ed Report— and this is a tough business. You take what you can get, especially from lobbyists with, according to the IRS, $188 million in annual revenue .

Yet that thin line is crossed for me when a funder’s agenda drives news coverage. And that sure seems what happened with Monday’s Assembly hearing.

Because if you relied on Spotlight’s four-and-a-half-minute video coverage titled “Teachers ask for less learning-loss messaging, fewer state assessments”, or you went by the text accompanying the video —“teachers and administrators pleaded with lawmakers to ease up on testing mandates and the rhetoric around student performance”— you’d reach the conclusion that this slant was an accurate reflection of the testimony to legislators. How could you think anything else?

But NJ Spotlight’s coverage is not accurate. Sure, NJEA lobbyists (in plentiful supply in the hearing room—jeez, you’d think they own the Statehouse) and some educators specifically called for “less pressure to get kids to catch up” and “more funding.” (Seriously? We just got an extra $2.8 billion from the feds!). A superintendent said to the Committee, “I don’t use the term ‘learning loss.’ I use ‘learning acceleration.’” Uh huh. Someone else said, “stop the testing.” Others called for the elimination of the Start Strong assessments given the last two Septembers. Another testifier said, “get rid of Student Growth Objectives,” one way administrators evaluate teachers for classroom effectiveness.

So that covers the hearing, right? There’s unanimity on eliminating testing  and student growth measurements. Also, the term “learning loss” is verboten

In order to achieve this impression, NJ Spotlight News producers made the decision to completely disregard the testimony of Paula White, JerseyCAN’s Executive Director. But that’s just one person, right? A minor oversight, a clip left on the cutting-room floor. Except for this: over the last three years JerseyCAN has served as a surrogate Education Department, assessing student learning loss, developing a statewide platform called Can’t Wait” for parents and teachers, issuing guidance on how NJ should spend that $2.8 billion in federal emergency aid for schools, releasing studies on the pandemic’s effect on students, giving parents a “Dear Teacher” template to help communicate with educators and a “Family Guide” that tells parents what their children should learn in each grade. And on and on.

Did NJ Spotlight News cover the testimony from the head of the statewide education hub that serves as a de facto DOE and is unfettered by NJEA’s agenda?

Nope. Not one word. 

Of course, you could fill in the gaps by reading JerseyCAN’s press release or  White’s op-ed in the Star-Ledger. But otherwise you’d never know that learning loss is real, that analysts urge states to maintain assessments and, parents value them as an important tool in checking student progress, that NJ students are lagging behind states like Mississippi, which ensures its teachers are fluent in the science of reading. 

Instead we get “stop the testing, lighten up, stop saying our kids fell behind.” Reminds  me of the widely-mocked remark of the head of the Los Angeles teachers union who insisted our kids hadn’t suffered learning loss:

But NJ Spotlight News isn’t supposed to be Twitter with its half-formed, one-sided taunts. It’s  supposed to be an important resource in the media desert we call New Jersey. 

Look, it’s true that our children–adults too!–have endured trauma during the COVID pandemic. Our kids need emotional support for sure. But schools, districts, and state education departments must walk and chew gum at the same time: provide social services and academic support so our kids (especially those from low-income families) aren’t permanently scarred by— let’s call it what it is—learning loss.

We don’t have a chance if we can’t say those words, or if we stop measuring student progress, or if the DOE eliminates assessments or, as one person argued at the Assembly hearing, “we just leave teachers alone.”

But you’d never know that by watching NJ Spotlight News. As a long-time fan, I advise less pandering to funders and more adherence to its original mission as a statewide objective source of news.

Want to hear what JerseyCAN leaders think about learning loss and all the rest? Here are some NJER TV videos not sponsored by NJEA:

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