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Media Literacy

Media literacy bill heads to governor’s desk

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A bipartisan bill requiring New Jersey schools to teach students how to spot misinformation and other media literacy skills is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after winning unanimous approval from the Senate this week.

The bill, which cleared the Assembly by broad margins last month, would require the state to create a set of learning standards on information that will eventually require students to be taught research and critical thinking, skills that supporters said have grown increasingly important in recent years.

“I’m so, so deeply grateful to the senators, to the Assembly people who really made this happen,” said Olga Polites, the New Jersey chapter leader of nonprofit Media Literacy Now. “I don’t know how aware they are of the long-term effects that this is going to have in a positive way.”

The information literacy learning standards drafted by the state Board of Education would cover all grade levels, from kindergarten to twelfth grade.

Information literacy has emerged as an increasingly important skill amid broad rises in social media use and online misinformation the platforms have struggled to keep off their feeds.

Pew Research Center survey conducted in July found 50% of U.S. adults at least sometimes got their news from a social media platform, including disproportionate numbers of internet-savvy teenagers and young adults, who research has shown are barely better at spotting disinformation than anyone else.

“Any parent could easily tell you — this is the world that adolescents inhabit,” Polites said.

Though New Jersey schools already have some requirements to teach media literacy, those requirements are scattered throughout different units and sometimes ignored, she said. Siloing information literacy off into its own lessons should ensure the topic gets taught, she added.

For the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, the bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland) and Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer), has more upsides than just teaching students to wade through seas of online misinformation.

Association President Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott hopes the bill would boost school library staffing that has been declining for years. The measure requires school librarians to be involved in the drafting of information literacy curricula at the district level.

In annual reports, the Department of Education said New Jersey had one librarian for every 1,198 students during the 2020-2021 school year. There were 911 students for every librarian during the 2016-2017 school year.

“The most disheartening stories are from school districts where there’s only one librarian servicing the whole school district of 6,000, 8,000 students,” said Dziedzic-Elliott. “You can imagine in those districts there’s absolutely no way that there’s any kind of information literacy happening there. There are no book exchanges. There are no lessons regarding any kind of library skills or information skills or critical thinking skills or decoding information.”

Some districts don’t have any librarians, she said.

The decline in library staffing could have implications for student performance. Studies have consistently shown a correlation between strong library programs and standardized test scores on reading.

“The bottom line is if we want our students to test well and be literate, we need to have more librarians to help them with that,” Dziedzic-Elliott said.

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