Interview with Paula White

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Paula White has been named the new executive director for JerseyCAN. 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee speaks with her about the release of the 2022 long-term NAEP data, the implications for the Garden State and her most urgent policy priorities for the first year of her tenure.


Marc Magee: Welcome back to another video interview in the New Reality Roundup video interview series. I am very excited to have with us today the new executive director of JerseyCAN, Paula White. Paula, welcome.

Paula White: Thanks so much Marc. It’s so good to be here.

And it’s great to have you at a time when there’s a lot going on in ed reform and a lot of news that we’ve been covering. So there’s been all this talk over the past week of the new results from the 2022 NAEP, which is often referred to as the nation’s report card. And there’s two parts to it. There’s the long-term NAEP, there’s the main NAEP. The long-term NAEP, which just came out, tracks student results way back, back into the 1970s so we can see how things have changed over time. And then the main NAEP is going to come out in October and that’s going to allow us to go in more detail at the state and city level. And I think probably the best way to summarize it is shocking. When we were looking over the data, we’d known things were really challenging in the pandemic, but my take away was, “Wow. We’ve really got our work cut out for us.” What were your initial reactions?

So my initial reaction was one of shock. And that in and of itself is shocking because I have actually been sort of the purveyor of doom around all that’s been transpiring since the pandemic. I have not worn rose colored glasses. I have been very clear that students were losing ground particularly our black and brown students. But when we see the extent to which this is true, based on the NAEP results that we now have– and it’s a really strong, good measure and they’ve taken all kinds of steps to make sure that the data is as reliable as possible. So when you look at a reliable data set and it tells you that for the first time ever that scores have dropped in mathematics– for the first time in over three decades. And when you look at the fact that the reading scores have had the most precipitous drop since the 1980s, then that is indeed a cause for alarm. And so that’s my thought there. Also, just the idea of the Matthew effect, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and this has been brought into sharpest [relief?] with the NAEP data. Because we’ve been able to see in the specific quartiles and percentile ranks that the students have lost ground across the board. But the students who are the highest performers have maybe declined three points or four points or five points depending on whether we’re talking about reading or mathematics. But then when you go to the students who are in the lowest percentiles– so not the 75th, but like the 25th percentile, now you’re looking at drops– double digit drops. 13-point drops, 16-point drops. And so just really that idea of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. That’s where we are in America, and it’s not okay.

Yeah. And that was the great concern I think a lot of us had when schools first closed. That the kids who were most vulnerable– or a different way of saying that, the kids who needed in-person learning the most were the ones who were going to really be most challenged by this. And that created a sense of urgency, “We’ve got to do more for kids.” Unfortunately, it seems like the conclusion, at least at the national level, is that we didn’t do nearly enough. And we’ve got this double whammy. The [raw?] numbers are down. But the kids were most concerned about, they got hit the hardest. And I assume, for you, as someone who’s been in the classroom as a teacher, who’s now playing this role as an advocate, that must have been pretty hard to see all of the work we’ve– all the progress you’ve made over the past 20 years, wiped out in two years.

Yes. Yes. It was really tough to see. I mean, as a mom, I thought about my three children who are now all adults, but I was just thinking if they were in the pandemic, I know each of them as sort of different kinds of persons and how they would have been impacted differentially. And I thought about the same thing as a former classroom teacher for so many years, that’s like I was thinking of the kids who would be particularly vulnerable, the ones who when you stand over their shoulder, and when you sort of give them real-time feedback, that can correct a misconception that they have in their minds, in the moment, so that way, they’re not practicing wrong for the next 10 days, or 10 months. And so those are the opportunities that we lost. And we can see the result. So yeah, it hurt because I attach names to those student profiles. Yes. And this year actually, one of the reasons why I’m so happy to be here at the helm of JerseyCAN, is that this was the year that the first group of the students in the charter school that I founded, they just finished their high school careers. And I bought them in in first grade. And I’ve got Vanessa, who’s a freshman at Harvard, she just moved in on 17th. I’ve got Keyshawn, who’s at Montclair State up the street from where I live. And I think about these students, and what it has meant for them to have the education that they’ve had. And that their students behind them that if we don’t get our acts together, they will be having a dream deferred.

Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that’s the key. The numbers are shocking, obviously. And we can look at the data. And we can try to make sense of it from a kind of research perspective. But it’s so important to remember these are real kids, real families, real dreams. And that’s the responsibility we have right now end the urgency. Because we know you only get one shot at middle school, one shot at high school, you got to make the most of it, you only have a few years. And the kids who were first hit by this pandemic as freshmen are now going into the senior year of high school. That’s their whole experience.

That’s right.

Yeah. So this is tough news to read. And I think for a lot of people, they read about it, almost like when you read bad news, you want to kind of tune it out, because you don’t feel like you can do something necessarily. I think one of the great gifts as an advocate is we get to wake up each day and then do something about the problems in education we read about. So as I mentioned, at the top of the interview, you are the new executive director of JerseyCAN and you’ve got this opportunity to go out starting this year and say, “Here’s how we’re going to use our resources, our power that we’ve built up, our knowledge to do something more for kids in this moment.” So I thought maybe you could let us in a little bit about your current thinking and where you want to take JerseyCAN.

Sure. So JerseyCAN has a really solid foundation to build on and on. And one of the things that was happening in this organization that really wasn’t happening elsewhere in the state is keeping our eyes on the learning loss that was occurring during the pandemic which we just spoke about, but also working with legislatures or around the Tutoring Corp, the New Jersey Tutoring Corp, which was put in our budget last year. We which is enabling students to get high dosage 1:1, 1:2, 1:3 tutoring. And something like that, we need to continue to have. And as I think about building on this legacy and on this foundation, I’m thinking about how we are teaching reading in the state of New Jersey. And the answer to that question is, “A lot of different ways.” So the question becomes, “Are we being informed by the science?” and being in the moment that we’re in right now, we cannot just sort of meander about. We can’t be in sort of cruise control, right? We can’t think about getting to our destination, and sort of look over at the trees, and make decisions in real time where this is the thing I like to do in my class. Educators have lots of professional autonomy, but what they have first and foremost is an obligation to do that which has been practice proven and scientifically based to really support the most kids. And I think this is the moment where we want to sort of corral legislatures, and our Department of Education, for us to have a meeting of the minds and say, “Let’s put a stake in the ground about our approach to teaching reading. And let’s make sure that it’s the way that it’s going to get the greatest swath of kids literate in the shortest amount of time.” So I’m going to be really focused on the scientific approach to literacy, and how can we make sure that it comes into our state. And then I’m also thinking just about schools. Wanting to make sure that schools that are doing a great job of educating students, have the best shot at being able to grow, regardless of what that school’s governance structure is, whether it’s a traditional public school, or a public charter school. We want to make sure that those schools can really proliferate and serve as many students as possible. And so just wanting to make sure that there is an environment where that can happen in the state of New Jersey, because we need great schools now more than ever. We have some great ones, and we need to make sure that they can grow and continue to serve more kids.

I love that. I think it’s so important right now to resist the temptation in a crisis, to say, “Our goal is to return to normal.” Because we know that normal, before the pandemic, was failing so many kids. And we know that in grading instructions. There were way to many kids who weren’t learning to read on time, when we know we could have stronger instruction. We know that in terms of the inequalities across schools, in terms of school quality in New Jersey and around the country. So I think this– I love the idea of, “Let’s get kids back in school, but let’s aim higher in what we can deliver for them in those schools.” And it seems like there’s a great opportunity. The other challenge I think we have sometimes, and I know you’ve confronted this in New Jersey in the past, is in those states that are typically on average doing better, sometimes we can become a little complacent about what’s possible. New Jersey is one of these states. We don’t have the data for each state yet, but I suspect when it comes out on some level, there’ll be some story to tell about, “Hey. Look at how New Jersey’s doing.” How do you grapple with that, specifically in New Jersey?

Yeah. That’s a great question. One of the most popular TED talks on Youtube is by an author, Chimamanda Adichie, she talks about the danger of a single story. And nowhere is that more important to think about than in the state of New Jersey. Because the fact of the matter is, that we are either number one or number two in the country, statistically speaking, when we talk about the number one state in the country for education, the number two. We flip-flop with Massachusetts, we duke it out from time to time, but we always rank at the top. But the danger of a single story is the reality that when we disaggregate the data and we look at black and brown students, we have a very, very different picture emerging. And so for me, out of respect for the students who are languishing in those lower quartiles, who are not learning how to read, learning numeracy, and they’re not getting ready for the world that is out there for them to conquer, I can’t render them invisible. I can’t do that. And so I have to sort of have the conversation about them. And so I’m that person. I’m that annoying person. It’s a little bit of a killjoy perhaps, but I’ve got to bring up the thing, “Hey. What about those students?” Because otherwise, we’ve just got this glossed over picture. And yes, we have excellent educators in this state, and we’re doing a lot of great things, but the reality is that the outcomes are not uniform across the board. And that is true for many reasons that we can change. Certainly there are all kinds of systemic issues, and I’m not here to dispute any of them, but I do know that there are things in the locus of our control that we’re not all doing right now. And so I want to make sure we always have our focus on those things.

That’s great. That’s great. Well, Paula, I’m so glad you are at the helm of JerseyCAN and part of the 50CAN network. We’re excited to learn alongside you over the coming year, and years ahead. And thank you for taking a moment out of what I’m sure is very busy month to talk about the news of the day.

Thanks a ton, Marc. I’m so glad to be here, and yeah. Let’s keep going.


Tags: JerseyCAN
More Interviews
Share This