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OP-ED | College, Career and Democracy ready? Not without a trained librarian

by Sarah Darer Littman | Jun 13, 2014 2:25pm
(12) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion


I had a conversation recently with a Connecticut politician in which I’d asked him if we truly care about literacy and improving reading skills, why are we spending so much money on testing while schools that most need functioning libraries don’t have any? Or if they do have a school library, why don’t they have up-to-date materials or a qualified media specialist to put the right book in the hands of a child at the right time?

When I’d asked the question, this politician asked me if research existed to justify the salary of a media specialist. I suspect this politician knows full well such research exists. It’s been well documented for years.. But let’s review a few of most recent studies here.

In their January 2012 study, Keith Curry Lance and Linda Hofschire looked at the Change in School Librarian Staffing Linked with Change in CSAP Reading Performance 2005 to 2011, (CSAP is a Colorado state test).

Their conclusion, consistent with findings of many previous studies, found that “regardless of how rich or how poor a community is, students tend to perform better on reading tests where, and when, their library programs are in the hands of endorsed librarians . . . At schools where library programs lose or never had an endorsed librarian, students suffer as a result.”

An earlier study
by Lance and Hofschire looking at national librarian statistics vs. 4th-grade reading scores on the NEAP 2004-05 vs. 2008-09 found that students in poverty, Hispanic, and Black students scored noticeably higher in the states that gained librarians than in states that lost them. Conversely, English Language Learner (ELL) students were particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of losing school librarians.

The sad fact is that in the districts that need them most, we are seeing school libraries underfunded or zero funded, and endorsed school librarian hours cut or eliminated.

Business leaders want our kids to be “college and career ready.” I want that but more, I want them to be life ready, with the socio-emotional and media literacy skills that they’ll need to be good citizens in our democracy.

It doesn’t look like our kids will be getting these skills under the self-styled, “Education Governor.” I asked members of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians how things are going out in the field.

Cathy Andronik, a teacher librarian at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, writes:

“I work in a district with 2 comprehensive high schools, one ‘other’ high school, 12 elementary schools, and 4 middle schools. The elementary and middle school libraries are staffed by paraprofessionals, who are not full-time. For a year or two there was one para for every two schools. There has not been a professional at the elementary or middle school levels for roughly 20 years.

The comprehensive high schools have about 1,700 students each. We used to have two professionals and a paraprofessional per school. Three years ago we were cut back to one professional and one para each. I’m coming to the end of my 13th year at my current school. I was the supervisor of the elementary/middle paras for two years before that. I was not replaced in that position when the grant that funded me ran out. The libraries have had no Central Office representation in all that time. One tech director said flatly, ‘I don’t do libraries.’

The school libraries in Norwalk have not had district money for three straight years. We are unable to buy books, magazines, newspapers, ebooks, DVDs, etc., or subscribe to databases beyond what the state provides. The only money to spend is from library overdue/lost book fines. The local Goodwill stores know me by name.”


Anita Corbeil, librarian at the Columbus School in Bridgeport reports:

“All library aides were cut this year. Previous to this year, if they resigned, they were not replaced. I have 32 classes a week, 5 lunch duties, 6 preps and 5 lunches which leaves me with 2 free periods a week in a week of 50 slots. I shelve and process books before and after school. In the 5 years that I have worked here, I have not had a budget. I buy all of my own pencils, crayons, markers, white board markers, book tape, book covers, glue and any other supplies you can think of. The only new books that come into this library are purchased by me with my own personal funds or the Southport Library Book sale that takes place in July.”


Matthew Cadorette, librarian at Waterford High School, is the only certified librarian in a school system of 3 elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. He reports:

“The other schools have library aides. The high school used to have two paras but now has only one. The middle school used to have a certified librarian, but that position was eliminated about 5 years ago. To my district’s credit, they gave the 3 elementary schools a budget ($5,000) for the first time in about five years after I lobbied the assistant super.”


From one librarian who asked to remain anonymous based on fear of retribution, I received this report:

“In the past during budget crisis time, my budget has been cut or eliminated. This year, with a budget that has been severely cut . . . I would be surprised if my book budget is anything but zero.  We’re cutting people — no resource would be more important. Also, even in years when budgets are intact, keep in mind that libraries need to respond to every new initiative (notably Common Core that shifts some literary emphasis areas), to curriculum changes (e.g., the new arts standards just came out; the new social studies framework may be approved this summer; there’s yet another science framework in the works). Collections physically require updating as books are heavily used and eventually fall apart.

People will ask “Why not switch to digital books?” To be clear, I love my Kindle for some types of reading. However, ebooks are generally not cheaper than print and require a reader for access.  Systems like Follett (one of the biggest vendors for schools as they carry books Amazon may not - there’s a different demand for popular books vs. nonfiction on ancient Greece!) require a higher level of reader . . . We don’t have the equipment; we don’t have the money to buy it; we don’t have the money to stock the ebooks. Add in baloney like HarperCollins (Murdoch in thinly veiled disguise) deciding that you are not buying the book but a 26-use license which then has to be repurchased and the cost skyrockets. Then there’s the fact that some people don’t like the e-readers. Many books (particularly nonfiction and more particularly nonfiction for kids to use for school) are not available in e-format. In the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of research coming out that strongly suggests that we do not read with the same level or comprehension or complexity when using an e-reader.


Another librarian who also asked to remain anonymous, wrote:

“I work in a high-poverty district, and the defunding of the library media program began in 2008. In 2008, the district where I work laid off every library media specialist in every school and replaced them with library clerks. In 2012, the high school was forced to hire me, a certified library media specialist, because their NEASC accreditation was at risk.

My budget next year is 1/5 of what it is this year. I was told that is because information resources are free from Google. However, when our students take standardized assessments such as SBAC on the computer, they are asked to read and compare between 3 and 5 sources, primary texts (such as excerpts from literature) and secondary texts (such as encyclopedia entries), and to then comprehend, analyze, and respond to what they have read in essay format. They are then assessed on their ability to do that. The ability to search for answers using Google is not a skill that SBAC is assessing, but I am not being given the budget to acquire the resources that we need to provide our students to learn, practice, and master those skills to perform well on the assessments we give to our students.

I am still the only certified library media specialist in the district. All of the other schools have part time library clerks, who are non-certified staff and do not even need a bachelor’s degree in order to work in the school library. Students are arriving to high school with information literacy/research skills that are not even at a 6th grade level. I know this from giving baseline assessments. Last year, students graduating from high school from Honors and AP classes were assessed on information literacy/research skills and they had about 40 percent proficiency on assessments intended for 9th graders entering high school. This means that when those students went to college in the fall, they were at great risk of doing very poorly in the college environment, which as we know is geared primarily toward research and writing, and requires information literacy research skills such as following a standardized format for citation, using authoritative sources from research databases, and other research skills that are taught in sequence in library media curriculum beginning in kindergarten.

I have attached data about the impact of the loss of certified staff on student learning, particularly for college and career readiness. The attached chart documents the usage of online research databases for the last four years. The first three are during the years that the high school had only a library clerk (2009-12) and the last bar is from the first year that a certified library media specialist was working here again (2012-13). You can see the impact of not having a certified library media specialist. Since mastery of the use of research databases is an important college readiness skill, as the primary research tools that are used at colleges and universities are research databases, the usage of the databases at the high school level is an important component of college readiness for high school students.”


Students can’t be ready for college, career, and democracy without being taught these important skills. Handing them a shiny Chromebook and testing them more isn’t going to do the trick. Politicians from Washington on down need to recognize that current education policy is deeply flawed and must be revised before we waste more taxpayer money and send more children into the world woefully unprepared.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

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(12) Comments

posted by: Historian | June 13, 2014  6:10pm

a library is an expensive and wasteful place staffed by self satisfied and overpaid clerks pretending to be contributing to the common weal. The average citizen spends little time there and seems to assume that he or she benefits by the mysterious seepage of knowledge out of the libraries and into their brains as they drive by. 
  Literally miles of shelves are filled - so very neatly with the latest blouse tearers and those of ten years ago along with a much smaller number of mostly inaccurate, poorly chosen and written non fiction. Of course there are the non library attractions - especially the free videos and free computers that do attract real interest - after all they are FREE. Wonder what happened to Blockbuster”?
  Then there is the strange assumption by all who drive by - that just by having a town building, filled with all those books, that the knowledge therein actually seeps out under the doors and into the brains of the drivers and especially “the children”... Go to some tag sales and you will find out how little people read books. 
  Libraries have always been clumsy to use since most librarians do not have a clue how to stock the shelves- except for the Library of
Congress but they gets their books free. 
  Just another bunch of civil “servant” clerks glorifying their contribution to society to get a bigger raise.

posted by: Fisherman | June 13, 2014  8:54pm

Different day, same trick. And just when she was doing so well in other subjects.

posted by: DrHunterSThompson | June 14, 2014  8:21am

DrHunterSThompson

Right on. Although we have a penchant in education to research every question and then parse the results to support our position, this one is easy. Library programs are some of the most important in education, particularly elementary education, and the woeful funding levels, which have been dropping for years, unless reversed will continue to plague our kids education.

I don’t get it. Education is not that difficult, although it is expensive thanks to the EEA of 1986.  We tried not to leave kids behind, test them, and core them, but it seems we have forgotten how to teach them.

It’s all very sad.  School should be a fun learning experience and politicians at every level should be held accountable.

HST

posted by: Castles Burning | June 14, 2014  8:29am

Sarah,

Thank you for bringing the situation of school libraries up for discussion and, of course, for providing some obviously “needed” research. 

I no longer have a certified librarian whom I can go to for consultation and I knew that some school libraries suffered from staffing and funding cuts, but I did not know how pervasive the problem is. 

As you so aptly point out, in the “digital age” it can too easily be assumed that students know enough about research.  In my own experience, it gets harder and harder to teach research skills to the “google generation” as they assume that they know enough and “debate” the necessity of documentation, etc. 

I hope that readers notice how many libraries are being supported by the librarians themselves.  Educators tend to “pick up,” as best they can, what is most needed in underfunded systems (of which we have many in the state with the greatest disparity in education).

A rich supply of CURRENT “must reads” is necessary for the sustained building of readers.  This list changes quickly (Twilight now stays on the shelf in the clssroom library.) so it is crucial that students have access to what they want to read or else they never truly become readers. 

Please keep us informed of the situation in CT currently.  I imagine that Jonathan Pelto might better understand the importance of “put[ting] the right book in the hands of a child at the right time.”  This phrase gets to the “heart of the matter,” and for those who have never tried to do so with “non-readers,” you cannot imagine how challenging a task it is.  The more “reluctant” the reader, the more likely that s/he will not find a book of interest.

Thank you, Sarah, for understanding and informing.

posted by: Linda12 | June 14, 2014  12:45pm

Wow, what an ignorant “historian”. Save us from this blabber.  My eyes hurt.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | June 15, 2014  9:26am

“The average citizen spends little time there”
Clearly “historian” isn’t a historian, nor has he or she been to a library recently.

Nor, like most of our politicians,  does he or she appear able to look at research.

posted by: Nutmeg87 | June 16, 2014  11:37am

Successful “Libraries” of today have evolved to truely meet a community’s need and have the ability to draw the comon folk to its vast resources…  The grand libraries at Greenwich & Westport are examples of central town meeting place - that draws area students as well as average folk with resources not just for academic needs, but for enhancing lifestyle & common research (tax, business, employment, hobby, household, club meetings, community seminars, book reads/clubs etc..)... These libraries do well and are unequivocally a centerpiece of the community because they reflect the community that it serves…

Most libraries are the legacies of a time gone by…  They just serve as a memory of high school…  Much of what @Historian says is unfortunately true (like it or not)...  Most communities are not wholy served by a vestige of Norman Rockwell days full of high school required readings and just outdated books that collect dust…  Where a lot of communities are debating where its scarce tax dollars can be spent, these relics certainly will not offer any leverage to the taxpayer…  Maybe these wannabe intellectuals and liberals ought to be more creative and pull resources of like-communities to truely accomodate the public served rather than support the same depository of books that only high schoolers will briefly visit…

Just the same everywhere in the public markets - creating/maintaining what WAS and not proactively serving the marketplace like a business - offering customers what they want more efficiently or creating innovations that will change their lives…

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | June 16, 2014  5:29pm

Nutmeg87 - another one who seems incapable of actually reading an article and looking at research, but rather uses the piece for a rant about a completely different subject. This piece isn’t about community libraries. It’s about school libraries. And it is backed up by research, not conjecture, unlike your comment.

posted by: Michele | June 17, 2014  7:02am

First of all, this op-ed is about public school library budgets, or the lack thereof. I have two children remaining in public schools, and they rarely have library time at all anymore. The lack of focus on reading and research skills by public schools is alarming. This piece gave me enough facts and figures to research how our town’s schools view their school libraries and those who staff them. Media specialist? Never had any of those on staff. We do, however, have caring librarians at each of the schools. Additionally, language arts teachers have been building classroom libraries and encouraging students to read independently every day. This issue is vital to a literate society. If our school children are not comfortable in a library or know where to find information when they need it apart from Google, we will see students entering college unprepared. Oh wait! I see that already at my community college.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | June 17, 2014  7:58am

Michele - it’s hard to focus on reading and research skills when the primary focus is Test Scores Uber Alles. I see this in the writing classes I teach, and in the writing contests I’ve judged, even at the highest national level (3X Scholastic National Judge) - I see great writing, but I also see a deeply depressing increase in “test writing” - kids using “$10 words” because they’ve been told they get more points on the test when a simpler word would read better in the piece and give more clarity. And for those who want kids to be “career ready” - this isn’t business writing. I’ve written for Wall Street - and my bosses wouldn’t have put up with the convoluted, wordy, passive voice pieces that are supposed to be persuasive essays. It makes me furious, as an author, as a writing teacher, but mostly as a parent and a citizen in a democracy. We’re depriving our kids of their voices.

posted by: Nutmeg87 | June 17, 2014  11:02am

Well you know Sarah…  Politics is local…  So are Schools…  Community demographics play highly in education (hence school libraries - yeah i get it - but lets not get too myopic here to defend library/media centers at local schools)...

Your “research” much like any “research” used for argument sake is selective & anecdotal at best…  Im sure someone can get just as many librarians saying the opposite at local schools…  A little self-serving (no one likes to lose a job nor get phased out)... 

I do agree that ESL does better with a “library” but thats an ESL issue…  Yes many in poverty and especially the cross-section that is also ESL will do better with more resources - But to what extent does the average tax payer have to coninually bear that weight…

I get the data youre pushing - however, how much of the failure/success of the students have to do with demographics…  Its a national debate that even OBAMA now is considering - Why does everyone need a Liberal Arts College, or even the conventional local education that is directed towards that path…  maybe more Community Colleges that are more geared towards vocation.  NOW THAT DEBATE WILL CHALLENGE ALL YOUR ASSUMPTIONS ON WHY EVERYONE NEEDS THE LIBRARY OF YESTERDAY… 

I bring up community libraries because thats where the focus should be..  School libraries are not avail at the hours/days that can accomodate many…  My argument is simply to pool community resources (yeah the community pays for BOTH schools & libraries) and create libraries that the ENTIRE community can use - that will generate the usage & demand that will secure its place in society…

Just because readers wont read to your thinking, certainly doesnt mean they dont get what youre trying to say…  Municipalities cant keep paying raises & salaries to a status quo and citizens wonder why everyones not excelling in the liberal arts - Even in CT despite all the ridicule Foley is getting - will have their Wisconsin moment - when we run out of money to even maintain debt pmts… Everyone has wishes - Not everyone has $$$. Thus this debate isnt about NEED TO SAVE SCHOOL LIBRARIES TO SAVE DEMOCRACY - But about reality of demographics & leveraging scarce resources.

posted by: JudiMoreillon | June 21, 2014  10:08am

Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful, well-researched, and sadly, too true, reporting. EVERY student who attends a public school in the U.S. should have access to the rich resources of a school library and the expertise of a professional school librarian. Students are a “captive audience” six or seven hours every school day during which time they can be supported in developing literacy skills. (And when there is funding, school libraries can be open for extended hours during the week, on weekends, and during the summer months.) With 22% of U.S. kids living in poverty (most without access to literacy materials in their homes or communities), their school library run by an expert librarian can help level the literacy playing field. Teachers also need school librarians who help them support the curriculum and student learning with resources to engage kids. Librarians help prepare students for life after K-12 in which they will be expected to find, comprehend, evaluate, and apply information in their jobs, further education, and decision-making. I hope readers of your post will be encouraged to ask their local school district decision-makers tough questions about the state of school libraries in their communities.