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Ruiz, Gopal, and Turner Bills Aimed to Bolster Foundational Literacy Instruction and Address Learning Loss and Inequities Clear Committee

Trenton – To help rectify pandemic learning loss, close the achievement gap, and improve literacy rates among students in New Jersey, the Senate Education Committee advanced legislation today, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz, Senate Education Committee Chair Vin Gopal, and Senator Shirley Turner that aims to enhance student performance in reading through foundational literacy instruction and intervention programs. and establishes the new Office of Learning Equity and Academic Recovery (LEAR) in the Department of Education.

The legislative package is the result of a sustained collaborative effort to boost New Jersey’s literacy rates in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic between the Department of Education (DOE), the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, and education stakeholder groups, including:

·        New Jersey Association of School Administrators

·        New Jersey Children’s Foundation

·        New Jersey School Boards Association

·        New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association

·        Garden State Coalition of Schools

·        New Jersey Education Association

·        New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association

·        JerseyCAN

·        New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages

·        American Federation of Teachers

·        New Jersey Association of School Librarians

·        New Jersey Speech-Language-Hearing Association

·        Decoding Dyslexia NJ

·        SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

In 2023, New Jersey Student Learning Assessment results indicated that 58% of New Jersey third graders failed to meet proficiency levels. The results were catastrophic for Black students as 73.6% were found not proficient. Latino students fared only slightly better as 72.5% did not meet proficiency levels.

“While the pandemic negatively impacted student literacy rates across New Jersey, gaps in reading and academic performance have existed for decades. The pandemic simply exposed how severe these disparities are, especially for students of color, students with learning disabilities, multilingual students, and those living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This bill package represents a comprehensive and forward-thinking approach to improving the reading ability of our students. Through the combination of expert recommendations, universal screenings, parental involvement, and educator professional development, we can set our students up for a brighter future. Additional support through the new Office of Learning Equity and Academic Recovery will prop up these efforts and help ensure all policies incorporate solutions that address past injustices in education,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex/Hudson).

“I extend my deepest gratitude to the working group of literacy experts, the Department of Education, and the Governor’s administration, who rolled up their sleeves to make this legislation possible. Each advocacy organization’s valued expertise in foundational reading instruction was instrumental in creating an intervention model that can be successful,” continued Senator Ruiz.

“We cannot prolong action. In this budget season, I urge the swift passage and monetary support of these reforms. The greatest beneficiaries will be our State’s most treasured asset – our children,” stated Senator Ruiz.

“New Jersey public schools are some of the strongest in the nation, yet our children are still struggling to meet basic literacy proficiency thresholds,” said Senator Gopal (D-Monmouth). “Securing our children’s success later in life begins in the classroom. These foundational literacy skills can determine a student’s academic success, college readiness, and future career and economic prospects. Establishing a framework for reading assessments and interventions will give teachers and school districts a reliable resource that can propel students to their full potential.”

The first bill, S-2644, sponsored by Senator Ruiz and Senator Gopal, works to address the shortfall in student reading performance by establishing a Working Group on Student Literacy in the Department of Education that would work with DOE to implement evidence-based literacy strategies, screenings, and interventions for students, and establish a professional development program in literacy education for teachers.

The Commissioner of Education would appoint members representing all regions of the State to the Working Group on Student Literacy. This would include professionals with expertise working with students with disabilities, multilingual students, and those with dyslexia.

After the Working Group on Student Literacy presents its recommendations to DOE, the department will develop and publish guidance for school districts detailing acceptable instruments to conduct universal literacy screenings, high-quality literacy instructional materials, and data analysis strategies to determine their effectiveness.

Once implemented, school districts would be required to conduct at least two literacy screenings annually for students in grades K-3 and notify parents or guardians of the results within 30 days of availability.

The DOE would also establish a professional development program regarding

foundational literacy instruction for early education professionals, including teachers and librarians. An online resource center to aid school districts in the selection of these materials would also be established.

A second bill, S-2647, sponsored by Senator Ruiz and Senator Turner, would establish an Office of Learning Equity and Academic Recovery (LEAR) in the DOE.

The office would be responsible for enhancing DOE’s ability to make data-driven decisions, coordinate resources, and research best practices for literacy, learning equity, and learning acceleration.

“State test scores indicate significant drops in student performance compared to pre-pandemic, which can have a long-lasting social and economic impact,” said Senator Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon), “The student performance data is abundant and alarming. We must give our most underprivileged students a fair shot at success in school. Establishing an office tasked with making data-driven decisions regarding literacy will improve our understanding of the factors that impact reading even further and will help us implement new strategies to get students back on track.”

Support to school districts to improve student outcomes through research, data analysis, and stakeholder engagement would also be provided through LEAR.

Both bills advanced in a unanimous 5-0 vote.