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