By David Levinsky
TRENTON — Assemblyman Troy Singleton is no stranger to controversial subjects.
In the months after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, the Burlington County Democrat successfully shepherded a gun control bill through the New Jersey Legislature that increased the penalties for people convicted of illegal gun trafficking as well as gun dealers connected to straw purchases. The bill became one of a select few gun measures Gov. Chris Christie signed into law this summer.
With just a few months left in his first term in the Assembly, Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, is taking on another controversial issue: education reform.
“We know that we’re in an increasingly competitive global environment that begs us to step up our game,” Singleton said. “Where once we were competing against other states for jobs and commerce, we now face fierce competition from countries like China and India, where a heavy educational emphasis is placed on science, math and technology. If we want to maintain our competitive advantage and prepare youngsters to succeed in the global economy, we need to focus our efforts on these critical areas.”
To that end, Singleton has introduced a three-bill package that aims to attract more educators to critical math and science subjects, as well as boost student performance by focusing more on their individual needs and aptitudes.
To get more quality educators to teach science, Singleton proposes the creation of a state loan redemption program for highly qualified public school teachers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).
Under his bill, teachers would be eligible to have up to $9,000 in student loans forgiven if they complete three consecutive years of teaching STEM subjects or special education at a New Jersey public school.
Only New Jersey residents would be eligible, and candidates must have graduated in the top 20 percent of their high school class or scored in the top 20 percent on the SAT or ACT. Eligibility would also be limited to teachers who graduated from college with at least a 3.5 grade point average.
A second bill designed to boost teacher performance would require colleges with teacher preparation programs to publish on their websites information such as the program’s attrition, retention and completion rates of students enrolled in the program as well as enrollees’ average scores on teacher certification tests and the percentage of graduates who obtain full- or part-time teaching positions.
The bill would also require the New Jersey State Board of Education to consult with an advisory board of educational professionals to use the reported data to establish a rating for each teaching program, which would be published online.
Singleton, a former member of Rowan University’s board of trustees, said the goal was to better evaluate the state’s teacher preparation programs and push them to achieve better results.
“If we’re going to evaluate teachers, I think we also have to evaluate the programs that are preparing them to move forward,” he said. “Based on the conversations I’ve had, most (colleges) welcome the opportunity to stack themselves up against their peers.”
The third bill in the package would mandate schools to take a more individualized approach to education by establishing “personalized learning plans” for each student in kindergarten through 12th grade. The plan would be written based on input from teachers, parents and, as age-appropriate, students, and would identify individual students’ abilities and aptitudes to guide decisions about their education to better prepare them for college or work.
Singleton called the approach the “Flexible Pathways Initiative” and said it is designed to boost student performance by making New Jersey public education more individualized rather than test-focused.
“We really want to focus on creating student learners rather then just test takers,” he said.
He said he crafted the measure based on conversations with educators who stressed that each student learns differently.
The bill would also require the state Department of Education to develop a program for high-achieving seniors to complete high school while simultaneously enrolled as a full-time student at participating colleges or universities.
All three bills were introduced Thursday.
Singleton said he knows education reform measures are not easy to move through the Legislature given the entrenched interests involved and the influence wielded by the state’s teachers’ union and other groups, but he hoped the bills “spark a conversation” among all the interested parties.
A similar approach helped build support for the gun measure Christie signed.
“With the gun bill, we sat down with the (National Rifle Association) and the gun control advocates in search of some areas of agreement,” he said. “I’m hopeful this will have the same success.”