NJDOE News

Back to the Basics: Literacy is the Key
Newspaper in Education Program of the Record

Commissioner William L. Librera
April 11, 2003

  • Ms. Forster, staff of the Bergen Record, and teachers in our northern region. What an impressive number of participants in this exciting program sponsored by the Bergen Record. I am always grateful for the opportunity to address classroom teachers who have assembled to share information, techniques, and ideas. The collegiality of a conference such as this gives all of us that extra motivation to try new ways and perfect our own art and skill.

  • I also want to take this opportunity to praise a program that has forged a successful long-standing partnership between the media and our teachers – the Newspaper in Education Program. Our newspapers provide our daily reports on history as it unfolds. It is valuable material for teachers to build into classroom activity.

  • I have been amazed by the accounts in the newspapers about how many teachers have responded to the teachable moments provided by what is currently happening with the war in Iraq. Teachers have perceived how anxious students are to discuss what is happening in the world and have built lessons around the need to talk about current events that may have an impact on students’ lives. These are the lessons most likely to develop higher level thinking skills and prepare students for citizenship in a free society. It is reporters and editors that supply the content for these classroom lessons that are timely and important.

  • The Department of Education is wholeheartedly behind finding diverse ways to teach Core Curriculum Content Standards to students. Your role as teachers is clear. However, to put the department’s role into perspective, we recently reviewed the first year of our administration and how we think we did in relation to our goals and objectives. We identified our accomplishments and reviewed our actions relative to our mission and our guiding principles.

  • The department is guided by some basic assumptions that will continue to influence our education agenda. These include the belief that all children can learn if taught well, and that there must be high expectations, multiple and diverse opportunities for children to meet the standards, research and analysis must be applied to teaching and learning effectiveness, and standards and outcomes must be held constant while we apply strategies and techniques in different ways.

  • It is within these guiding principles and assumptions that we will proceed as we carry out Governor James McGreevey’s 21-point education reform plan. The department has incorporated these 21 points into all of the new initiatives that are currently being implemented, as well as into all of the plans for future initiatives.

  • The department is focusing on five major themes that include the Governor’s 21 points. All of the critical issues in education are included within these five themes --
      • Teacher and administrator quality;
      • Raising student achievement;
      • Diverse and multiple paths for student success;
      • Innovative and outstanding practices/programs; and
      • Public engagement and communication and public accountability.

  • In regard to teacher and administrator quality, we have begun to work on quite a few initiatives that we hope will place the most capable teachers in the classroom and keep them there. Studies and statistics show that while we may be training enough people to fill the teaching ranks, the shortages are caused by an attrition rate that is much too high within the first few years. This is a problem that affects all of us in some way, and we must work collaboratively to improve it.

  • Our administration believes that literacy is the key to success and the earlier we address literacy, the better. All aspects of the education reform agenda must reinforce the goal to achieve early literacy for our students.

  • New Jersey’s standards-based reform efforts began with the establishment of a foundation of rigorous academic content standards. The Core Curriculum Content Standards provide expectations for what students must know and be able to do to succeed in the 21st century. The standards emphasize the development of higher level thinking skills and adaptability that will support students’ ability to thrive as life-long learners in a rapidly changing world.

  • Who will teach to these standards? Who will lead schools in which the instructional program is centered on the Core Curriculum Content Standards? How will colleges and universities provide those who wish to work in schools with the opportunities to learn how best to foster high levels of student achievement? These are the questions we have begun to address with our focus on professional standards for educators.

  • Research makes it clear that student achievement of our standards depends heavily upon the capacity of educators to translate core standards into meaningful student learning. We all know the critical role played by teachers and school leaders in promoting student success. As we raise the expectations and support for improved student learning, we must raise the expectations and support for high-quality teaching and leadership that focuses on improving and enhancing the instructional programs in our schools. We must ensure that those who work in our schools are well prepared to help students achieve in accordance with our Core Curriculum Content Standards.

  • Earlier this year, the department presented the State Board of Education with a proposed licensing code that embeds professional standards for teachers, school leaders and educator preparation programs into the process of obtaining a license to practice in New Jersey. Professional standards will help ensure that New Jersey teachers and school leaders have a clear vision of the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in helping students achieve at high levels. Professional standards will also help to ensure that teachers and administrators develop mastery of the content, pedagogy and leadership skills that are the building blocks of quality instruction and real school improvement.

  • New Jersey is one of many states across the country that is embracing professional standards as central to their licensing reform efforts. Many states are using performance-based standards and aligned assessments to redesign teacher and school leader preparation, induction, licensure requirements and ongoing professional development. Federal mandates such as those in No Child Left Behind emphasize the need to assure high-quality teaching. Professional standards offer the means of enhancing educator quality by defining the expectations for training, licensing and developing teachers and school leaders.

  • The New Jersey Professional Teaching Standards Board, a department advisory group that guides the professional development initiative for teachers, developed the standards for teachers that are proposed in the licensure code. The board worked diligently to gather input from educators around the state and consulted with experts from Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) in the development of the standards. While there is a strong correlation with the INTASC standards, the proposed standards emphasize areas of particular importance to New Jersey educators, such as literacy across the curriculum and technology skills.

  • The move to professional standards for teachers and school leaders, moves us away from a concern with the list of courses educators take in order to be licensed toward an emphasis on the knowledge, skills and dispositions expected of those who are licensed to practice. The focus is on outcomes rather than inputs.

  • The clearer we can be about how a responsible practitioner performs, the better the standards will serve in guiding and supporting efforts to prepare, license and develop teachers and school leaders who can provide high-quality services to New Jersey students. We know that teachers who engage in collegial activity and peer review and assistance have more success with students and, therefore, more career satisfaction. It is one of the reasons that the state supports the mentoring program for novice teachers, but there is no reason why mentoring should not occur throughout your career on an informal basis. I encourage districts to examine professional development programs for their effectiveness and to allow teachers to have more opportunities to teach each other as you do at a conference such as this.

  • An examination of the New Jersey Professional Development Standards that were developed by the New Jersey Professional Teaching Standards Board reveals that professional development centered on increasing content knowledge and teaching skills, as well as supporting collaboration among professionals who study together in order to apply the research on high-quality teaching and evaluation of instruction to their classroom practices, is closely aligned with the proposed professional standards for teachers. There has been a great deal made about the counting of hours when, in fact, it is the Professional Development Standards that are driving the review and improvement of local professional development plans. Standards applied appropriately are a powerful agent for change and growth.

  • New Jersey’s professional development initiative for school leaders will also be based on and driven by standards. The initiative is expected to go into effect in September 2004 and will focus on supporting administrators in providing instructional leadership. For teachers to be able to work in a collegial environment, there must be school leaders that understand the value of this need. Each administrator will develop an individualized professional development plan that will ground activities in objectives related to interests and needs in the areas of improving teaching, learning, and student achievement in accordance with state standards.

  • Professional standards are already at work supporting the professional development efforts of teachers, and they will provide a solid platform for educator preparation and licensure in New Jersey. Once we establish a climate of professional growth and success in our classrooms, we will have a better chance to retain our teachers and administrators.

  • In the area of licensure, the department is proposing the repeal of current licensing code and the adoption of a new chapter. This is being done for several reasons:

      • The state’s focus on professional standards to enhance student achievement—more attention on outcomes and less on seat-time—means that teachers and administrators must be prepared to meet this challenge;
      • Over the years, many new regulations and amendments have been adopted into the licensing code. The proposed code has been restructured to be practical and coherent, and, hopefully eliminate contradictions that appeared with time and use; and
      • To take advantage of recommendations relative to teaching, learning and student achievement from a wide range of professional associations, colleges and universities, consortiums on teaching and leadership, and other experts in the field of education.

  • If we can keep talented teachers in the classroom and concentrate on basic literacy throughout schooling, students will be able to tackle more difficult content in other areas of the standards. During one educational phase in the past,the key phrase was "every teacher is a teacher of reading." Perhaps that is one of the basic concepts we need to return to.

  • The second important area of concentration is that of raising student achievement. American society can no longer pretend that it provides equal educational opportunity for everyone. This goal goes to the heart of education’s purpose and its promise.

  • For our administration, emphasis on basic math and language arts literacy must begin with preschool. Last year we petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court for a one-year "time-out" on implementation of Whole School Reform programs. This year, we have petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to grant flexibility in the mandates of the original decisions. Abbott districts have reached parity with the I and J districts, but they are still encumbered by old restrictions that limit their ability to make the most efficient use of their parity dollars. We believe it is in the best interest of the state and the districts to cut them loose from some of these restrictions and let them revise their reform practices in accordance with their required three-year plans. We have closed the funding gap, now the priority is to close the achievement gap.

  • One of the central initiatives of the McGreevey Administration is the early literacy program. Research is clear that children who read at or above grade level by the third grade are going to have much greater success in the rest of their school years than those who cannot read by grade three. We have made significant progress over the last year by linking intensive Abbott early literacy programs with Reading First and all other department literacy efforts, such as the reading coach program. The coordination of these programs is yielding increased Abbott preschool enrollment. It also enabled us to ask the NJ Supreme Court this year to allow the Abbott districts to focus their resources on early literacy and mastery of the Core Curriculum Content Standards.

  • The Abbott preschool program is showing great promise for helping children to have early success in school. This program can be of critical importance to a child, especially one who is from an environment that puts him or her at risk of failure. Our preschool programs integrate educational, social, and family programs so that the child and the family can help develop the skills and self-esteem that children need in order to be successful in school and life beyond school.

  • We have worked hard to assure that the methods and strategies in the classroom are research-based and have been proven to be effective. We rely on the research work of the universities to help identify successful practices to use in classrooms from preschool forward.

  • We also are tapping higher education to assist with early childhood issues through our Early Learning Improvement Consortium (ELIC). The ELIC is a multiyear initiative in which participating institutions of higher education will assist the department and the Abbott districts in identifying the particularized needs of preschool children and assess progress toward high-quality preschool. The consortium also will plan and pilot a performance-based assessment system and related professional development.

  • We have high hopes that our strong early childhood programs in districts where children are at risk of failing in school from the beginning will give those children the strong start they need to be reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Currently, our own fourth-grade Elementary School Proficiency Assessment shows that in over 700 elementary schools in New Jersey, more than 30 percent of our children could not demonstrate proficiency in reading. Research shows that, if a child has not acquired basic literacy skills by the end of grade three, it will be much more difficult to acquire those skills in the succeeding years.

  • In addition to attention to preschool programs, we have trained and assigned 30 reading coaches to teachers in 80 schools who are working with non-achieving students and may not know some of the most effective ways to reach slow readers. Governor McGreevey has committed $10 million a year for four years to provide the reading coaches to districts most in need of this assistance. The department is seeking other talented teachers to become reading coaches to share their skill in teaching reading with colleagues in other schools.

  • The state also has won approval for a six-year $120 million Reading First grant to improve literacy from K-3. Districts with low reading scores are eligible for this grant money, specifically for early literacy initiatives.

  • Under the new No Child Left Behind Act, schools will be forced to disaggregate testing data and pay attention to the achievement levels of each of the subgroups, including racial/ethnic, special education, limited English proficient, gender and economically disadvantaged. Schools will have to develop strategies for meeting the needs of students in each of these subgroups if the students are not achieving basic literacy in math and language arts. One of the subgroups of major concern includes those who have limited English proficiency.

  • Recommendations from our early literacy task force emphasize the importance of using only research-based literacy programs and strategies in our preschool programs and elementary schools. Study after study has demonstrated that there is a strong and positive correlation between literacy in the native language and learning English, and that the degree of children’s native language proficiency is a strong predictor of their English language development.

  • Literacy in a child’s native language establishes a knowledge, concept and skills base that transfers from native language reading to reading in a second language.

  • The National Research Council’s (NRC) report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children explains that hurrying young non-English-speaking children into reading in English without ensuring adequate preparation is counterproductive. The NRC makes a two-pronged recommendation, strongly emphasizing the importance of native language oral and, when feasible, written proficiency.

  • According to the NRC report, if language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English but speaking a language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers, these children should be taught how to read in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English. Once there is proficiency in reading in their native language, students can then successfully be taught to extend their skills to reading in English.

  • However, if language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English but speak a language for which there are no materials or proficient native language teachers and if there are insufficient numbers of children to justify providing those resources, the initial instructional priority should be to develop the children’s oral proficiency in English. Formal reading instruction will be appropriate only when the students reach an adequate level of oral proficiency in English.

  • In compliance with the requirement to serve students most in need, it is anticipated that many local districts will provide native-language programs to meet the needs of the LEP populations. Selected reading programs for these students must meet the same high standards in the native language as those in English. Schools should provide detailed information to parents on all reading programs and materials used with bilingual/ESL students and students with disabilities, and describe how these programs fully support the goals of Reading First and the state’s entire literacy focus. We are serious about having every student in New Jersey achieve a level of literacy that assures success in school and beyond.

  • Along with Governor McGreevey, the department has helped to launch the Governor’s Book Club to encourage students to read. The more that children read, the better readers they will become. Since the book club’s launch in September 2002, over 60,000 children from kindergarten through grade three have become members of the book club by signing up on the Web site. In addition, more than 1500 teachers statewide have registered through the Web site for the book club’s monthly newsletter.

  • In order to assist teachers even more with what children should be taught in order to promote early literacy, we have revised the Core Curriculum Content Standards in math, science and language arts/literacy, which have been adopted by the State Board and are much more specific than the original ones adopted in 1996. They were especially strengthened in language arts literacy from preschool to grade three. The other areas of standards are still being reviewed and discussed before adoption.

  • Much of our education policy at every level must focus on the underachieving students in our schools. The department is in the planning phase for creating a student-level database so that we will be able to track students individually from year to year, especially to determine whether we are making adequate yearly progress in helping underachieving students. These data are necessary for us to identify trends and patterns of achievement and pinpoint the gaps that still exist.

  • When we talk about standards and achieving them, we need to have instruments to measure progress. The department has awarded a new testing contract to Educational Testing Service to produce statewide tests in language arts literacy and math for grades 3 and 4, starting in May of 2003 with grade 4 science to start in spring 2004. We have also received word from the federal government that our plan to administer a single fourth-grade test which will be a new test with anchor items from the current test has been approved. We will be able to use the new test for uninterrupted reporting of progress to meet federal requirements.

  • Once the third- and fourth-grade tests are implemented, the state will work with ETS to develop the tests for fifth and sixth grades by 2004-05 and seventh and eighth will follow.

  • Another important initiative related to the development of new assessments is the one in which business and industry are partners. We have jointly announced the targeted grant to the Coalition for Responsible Educational Assessment, Testing and Evaluation (CREATE) and the Business Coalition for Educational Excellence (BCEE) consortium in the amount of $750,000, to be supplemented by $100 thousand from the Business Coalition and $400 thousand of in-kind support from CREATE member organizations. The grant is for a pilot project to create performance-based tests to be used in conjunction with standardized tests. We announced the nine pilot districts at the April State Board meeting. We have selected Willa Spicer from South Brunswick, a superb educator and expert, to head the pilot project.

  • A third important policy area is the creation of diverse and multiple paths for student achievement. We must all begin to release education from the restrictions of the past and begin to find new paths to student success.

  • According to Labor department projections for 2000 to 2010, professional and related occupations are expected to add the greatest number of jobs during this decade and have one of the fastest growth rates, 1.9% annually, over the projection period. Leading career choices are expected to be computer specialists, health diagnosis and treatment, and health technologists and technicians.

  • In addition to a rigorous academic education, we also must consider that some careers need additional preparation even while in high school. With the participation of higher education, we have launched three different career academy programs since last year. The first was the partnership of Pfizer, the County College of Morris, and Morris School District with a $500,000 commitment from Pfizer to build a career exploration laboratory for a medical/health program that will ultimately benefit all students at Morristown High School. The second was PSE&G that became a partner with the Trenton School District and Mercer County Community College to develop an engineering program. The third was Commerce Bank partnering with Cherry Hill, Drexel University, Rutgers University, and Camden County Community College to develop the Cherry Hill Academy for Studies and Experiences.

  • We have also proposed a pilot project to revise the structure of the senior year for students who have passed the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). We will examine the many options we could offer students, such as service projects, internships, online courses, college-level courses, career academies, and others. We have approached the colleges, especially the community colleges, to become an integral part of this alternative path where students have dual enrollment in high school and college.

  • One of the overarching issues that the department is concerned about is the articulation of instruction from pre-k through grades 12, 14, 16, or even 20. Our students will be served best if we can reduce redundancy and repetition in our education levels and truly build on the skills and knowledge with each year of education. Since our newly revised standards are much more specific than the first set adopted in 1996, that articulation can be extended beyond K-12.

  • We also have announced plans for an Entrepreneurship/Business Management Academy with Camden County College, Rutgers University, and six Camden County High Schools participating. This academy will be the first seamless pre-kindergarten through senior year of college initiative in the state of New Jersey, and it will serve as a model for our administration’s senior year initiative.

  • We also are prepared to initiate five "renaissance schools" as a pilot program. These will be small schools designed to improve learning, as well as improve the surrounding neighborhoods. These will be pilot projects and we will observe the effects of these schools on urban development, as well as on academic success. The first was launched in Trenton last week.

  • In another collaborative venture, we established the New Jersey Center for Character Education at Rutgers University. The center will be funded through a $2 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education. New Jersey is one of only five states to receive an award under the Partnerships in Character Education grant program, Title V, Part D of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

  • The New Jersey Center for Character Education will assist the department along with the public and nonpublic schools throughout the state to achieve one of the objectives in Governor James E. McGreevey’s 21-point education reform plan for New Jersey -- to develop new initiatives to improve character education in our schools to help our children become productive, informed and actively involved citizens.

  • This is another programmatic path to student success. It is difficult to be an achieving student if a disruptive environment is allowed to affect your performance in school.

  • The last area of the Governor’s and my program is public communication, engagement and accountability.

  • We have shifted away from emphasis on compliance and oversight to one of support and technical assistance to local districts by reorganizing the department into two functional sectors – central operations and field operations. A large part of the field operations are being delivered by three regional offices that have incorporated the county offices into the regional delivery structure.

  • By having regional offices in the north, center and south of the state, we will be better able to deliver direct services and technical support to all districts. Some of the services that are available in our regional offices are statewide planning; creation of a seamless system of education pre-k to 14, 16, or 20; shared services; county AVA commissions, Educational Technology Training Centers, and Educational Services Commissions; certification examiners; replication of effective programs; and technical assistance for problem areas.

  • With the need to reach our constituent groups easily, the department will use technology to reach as many of the public as possible to keep everyone informed about what is happening in education in the state. Our Web site not only contains state-level information, it connects to local districts, and higher education, as well.

  • Our latest communication initiative is the network of schools. This will create a technology-based link between school districts and the DOE and will address three areas: the achievement imperative, special education reform, and small schools. The department hosted a videoconference from Trenton that included seven other sites for about 60 superintendents and other educators. It is crucial that we use creative ways to allow the education community to share information on practices that work.

  • We have plans for many more initiatives in these five critical areas as the year progresses, as well as for working toward full implementation of the many we have already launched, but the bottom line is literacy.