New law requires New Jersey schools to teach critical thinking, but could it be politicized?

A recently signed New Jersey law will ensure public schools teach critical thinking and other research skills, but some worry it could be politicized in the classroom.

New Jersey became the first…

A recently signed New Jersey law will ensure public schools teach critical thinking and other research skills, but some worry it could be politicized in the classroom.

New Jersey became the first state to mandate K-12 students learn “Information Literacy,” a new curriculum about “how information is produced and spread on the internet, critical thinking skills, the difference between facts and opinions and the ethics of creating and sharing information both online and in print,” reports Politico.

The law requires the state Department of Education to develop information literacy curriculum standards for each school district to incorporate “in an appropriate place in the [district’s] curriculum.”

The state board will be aided by a committee of school library media specialists and teachers in crafting and implementing the standards.

“Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse,” Gov. Phil Murphy claimed in a statement. “It is our responsibility to ensure our nation’s future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction.” 

The law establishes a baseline definition of information literacy. At minimum, the curriculum will have to include instruction on the research process and methods, how information is created and produced, and the difference between primary and secondary sources. 

The curriculum is intended to teach students the difference between facts, points of view and opinions. 

Finally, the standards will instruct students in the ethical production of information by attaining competency in accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources with an understanding of the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information. 

The measure enjoyed bipartisan support in both chambers of New Jersey’s legislature, but found its most vocal support among teachers’ unions, education advocacy groups, and librarians and media specialists, which in New Jersey are largely left-of-center. 

The New Jersey Education Association teacher’s union described the measure as crucial to “prepare students” to engage “in our American democracy.” 

But the origin and debate over the bill revealed a potential for political exploitation. Bill proponents repeatedly cited the election integrity movement and stories critical of gender ideology and Critical Race Theory in schools as examples of conspiracy theories students should be taught to dismiss, despite evidence to the contrary. 

Almost uniformly, the proponents of the measure framed the debate as a political necessity if the nation is to survive. With a near-exclusive emphasis on political subjects, the information literacy movement appears to be politically motivated. Equally important skills, like discerning the accuracy of scientific pronouncements, commercial and business advertising and marketing, and of course, the ability to digest and assess ever-evolving medical advice are all but ignored. 

The New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) announced it is “thrilled to announce passage” of the bill before restating the organization’s long-standing goal of mandating “that every student in every New Jersey school deserves to be taught by a State certified full-time School Library Media Specialist supported by a resource-rich school library program.” 

NJASL envisions their membership as the logical repository of Information Literacy instruction under the new law, describing themselves in their press release as “leaders in the integration of technology, information and digital literacies, and the professional development for school staff.” 

The organization expects their “State certified full-time School Library Media Specialists” to be the conduit for information literacy, which critics believe will unwisely position them as informational gatekeepers, a role the American Library Association openly seeks.  

The bill has been signed into law, but a great deal of work remains during the development and implementation phases to ensure the new curriculum doesn’t become just another partisan battleground in already embattled public schools.  

The state Board of Education will have to reconcile the new standards with the state Department of Education’s recommendations, then hold public hearings before requiring the standards for every school in the state.