Why Did NJ Student Learning Tank More Than Almost Any Other State?

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New Jersey residents may be surprised by the news, released Monday, that on the highly-regarded tests called the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), students in our state had one of the highest degrees of learning loss in the country. In a state that boasts the #1 school system in the country, we’re actually #39.

Why did our student outcomes drop so steeply?

  • It’s not because we don’t spend enough on schools: last year we spent (excluding overhead) $21,334 per pupil, an 8% increase from last year, behind only New York and Connecticut and $5K more per pupil than the national average.
  • It’s not because we don’t pay the average teacher enough. The median NJ salary is $76,430, the fourth highest in the country. (I’ve argued that we should pay our most effective teachers far more and get rid of back-loaded salary guides.)
  • It’s not because we have more than our share of disadvantaged students. Here 37% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch while the national average is 52%.

So why have our kids suffered disproportionate degrees of learning loss? The NAEP results have allowed analysts to trash some earlier hypotheses, like longer school closures would lead to more lost learning. (There’s some nuance there: in Florida  Ron DeSantis made it his calling card to keep schools open but students’ scores fell from 2019 levels anyway, although less than other states.)

There is no easy answer to Jersey’s decline and failure has many fathers. But one element is the New Jersey Education Department’s abnegation of responsibility for requiring districts to implement effective interventions.

Let’s look at a state that did better—Mississippi— which is blowing everyone away, the only state that didn’t lose ground in 4th grade math and, in fact, made gains in three out of the four areas tested (4th and 8th grade reading and math). This is despite 75% of its K-12 students qualifying for free/reduced lunch and an average cost per pupil of $9,255. In fact, across the board, student outcomes in the Magnolia State have reached national averages after decades of low performance.

So what does Mississippi do that New Jersey education leaders can emulate?

Former State Superintendent Carey Wright has pointed to the state’s “laser-like focus on literacy,” with the state mandating that every teacher be educated in the science of reading; in addition, the State DOE sends out literacy coaches to work with early-childhood education teachers in underserved areas.  For math, the state ensures that teachers have access to “high quality instructional materials” and “recruits teachers to design curriculum and assessments.” In addition, the state has made strides in closing achievement gaps that haunt states like New Jersey. Mike Petrilli  notes that Mississippi “quietly and methodically implement[ed] the Common Core standards without much commotion,” writing,

If Mississippi and Louisiana can overcome the ‘local control’ arguments and develop deep and meaningful efforts to assist districts with teaching, learning, and curriculum implementation, so can you.

In other words, the  Mississippi State Department of Education actually oversees district curricula and professional development, in addition to spear-heading Covid-specific  interventions like a statewide 7-day-a-week/24-hours-per-day high-dosage tutoring platform that families can access at no charge (paid for by federal stimulus money).

What does our DOE’s laissez-faire culture buy you? Zip.

NJ legislators are stepping into the void. Sen. Shirley Turner proposed a bill that would pilot longer school days and years. Assemblywoman Shanique Speight, in an echo of what Mississippi does, wants to require the DOE to establish a central registry of people and groups available to tutor struggling students for free. Sens. Teresa Ruiz and Andrew Zwicker want to mandate that the DOE report to the Legislature how the pandemic has affected student achievement. Another bill would establish the “COVID-19 Learning Loss Study Commission.”

Yet none of these bills have advanced.

Meanwhile NJ lobbyists are demanding we stop using the term “learning loss,” put “less pressure on teachers to get kids to catch up,” eliminate state assessments, and give schools more money.

These ideas would be a boon for adults and a disaster for kids.

But that’s what an utter failure of educational leadership looks like.

There are many reasons why NJ students’ math and reading proficiency levels have fallen so steeply. One of those reasons is a State Department of Education that lacks initiative, leadership, and any sense of responsibility for student outcomes.







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