'What is true?': Gov. Murphy signs information literacy education law

·4 min read

New Jersey’s K-12 students will soon receive instruction on information and media literacy through their schools — to provide them with the skills they will need to evaluate and assess competing sources of information from news media, TikTok and other social platforms that are just a screen away.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed legislation that establishes the requirement of K-12 instruction on information literacy under the implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. The bipartisan legislation aims to prepare students for lifelong learning by teaching them how to assess information accurately.

The new literacy law was six years in the making, said Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians. The group began working in 2016 to win support for the legislation from politicians and interest groups.

Librarians across the state were a key part of the push to make information literacy part of the public schools' learning standards. The group worked with the New Jersey Library Association to bring attention to the issue of culling facts from the available information, she said, and to have students ask: “What is true? What is real and what is academic?”

“We noticed that there is a need to put a greater effort into making sure that our students can decode information,” Dziedzic-Elliott said. The state’s library associations began to work on the bill at a time referred to as “the post-truth era" due to the "abundance of misinformation.”

The bill was not political, Dziedzic-Elliott said when asked if the effort was connected to the beginning of a more polarized political atmosphere across the country after the election of former President Donald Trump in 2016. Its goal, she said, was to help children recognize and combat any “false information” entering the world on all platforms, in areas from science to historical facts.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, and Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, was introduced last January and passed with wide support in November.

This law isn't about teaching kids that any specific idea is true or false; rather it's about helping them learn how to research, evaluate and understand the information they are presented, said Testa, who has three children of elementary and middle school ages.

“I want them to develop independent, free-thinking and critical skills to decipher, essentially, the wheat from the chaff, when it comes to the deluge of the materials that they are faced with by being on social media all the time,” Testa said.

Turner said the law is “especially timely as we approach the two-year anniversary of the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.” The events of Jan. 6, 2021, when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol protesting the victory of then-President-elect Joe Biden, were also the impetus for another law sponsored by Turner that took effect in September 2022, mandating that civics be taught in New Jersey's middle schools.

The law does not specify which grades will receive instruction in New Jersey, but middle school is usually when formal classes are introduced, said former Marine and middle school teacher John Silva, who taught news literacy as part of civics classes at Chicago Public Schools and is now senior director of professional and community learning at the News Literacy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

Illinois and New Jersey are among a few states across the nation that have passed laws requiring teaching information literacy. One thing that comes out of requirements like these is that “young people are less cynical about news and information because they are more empowered to be able to evaluate it themselves,” Silva said, adding that this helps them be better informed and “become active participants in civic life.”

Literacy is really a set of skills, practices and habits that apply to everyday information consumption and can be infused into curricula throughout the school years, he said.

Though the law takes effect immediately, it does not provide a timeline for when instruction should begin.

The new law will teach the differences among facts, points of view and opinions, the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information, and the ethical production of information.

A committee convened by the state Department of Education, teachers and library and media specialists will develop the learning standards for information literacy. The State Board of Education will hold “at least one public hearing” in the northern, central and southern parts of New Jersey to let residents comment on the standards before they are formally adopted, the law says.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 'What is true?': Murphy signs information literacy education law