Every good school has a library. And a school librarian. Too many school districts have decided that having good schools is too expensive.
School librarians, like other librarians, have a master’s in library science They must also have a valid teaching certificate.
Unfortunately, many school districts are getting rid of their librarians. I wrote earlier specifically about Chicago, but the problem is nationwide and has been building for years.
People who work in libraries without the master’s degree are not librarians. Non-librarians who work in schools are not allowed to perform the librarians’ teaching duties.
Librarians help people find, evaluate, and use information. They also introduce patrons to literature. School librarians serve both students and teachers in these basic tasks. Information comes in a dizzying array of formats.
Search engines have made it easy to find information. Finding the right information, knowing how much is necessary, and evaluating it remain as difficult as ever. It takes an information specialist to keep up with all of this variety and complexity.
Trouble around the country
Thirty years ago, the Ohio Department of Education issued a rule that school districts must hire at least five of eight specialties for every thousand students:
- music teacher
- art teacher
- physical education teacher
- visiting teacher
- guidance counselor
- social worker.
At the time, state incentives provided funding. The rule remains, but the funding has withered away. Now the Department has proposed eliminating the rule.
If districts no longer have to include these specialists on their faculties, urban districts with low budget will feel the most pressure to cut them.
Even now, middle school librarians in Columbus also cover elementary schools, which means that at any given school, usually no librarian is available. Other districts have one librarian for as many as 10,000 students.
Kansas law requires that all school districts must offer their students library services. It also allows them to use the public library as a substitute for their own staffing, however.
Sometimes, instead of hiring certified school librarians, they hire clerks, who by law cannot offer instruction. In other words, library services become reduced to checking out books and turning on computers.
The Brockton, Massachusetts school system had 14 librarians in 2004 and only seven in 2014-2015. That number has since been reduced to two. That’s two certified school librarians for 23 schools with about 17,500 students; 80% of the student population in Brockton comes from low-income families. Other Massachusetts school districts have eliminated all librarian positions. Where union contracts require librarians, districts are cutting their hours to less than full time.
Numerous districts across the country have jettisoned fully half of their school librarians over the past ten or fifteen years. The Philadelphia school district now has only ten, down from 176 in 1991.
The Missouri Association of School Librarians has found that, even with easy access to the Internet, three fourths of students don’t know how to find the resources they need for their papers. And 60% don’t know how to verify that whatever information they do find is accurate.
It’s librarians who have the education and training to teach students how to find information, assess its reliability, and use it ethically. They perform this work in collaboration with classroom teachers. In addition, they are the best suited to help students find something to read for pleasure.
They do much more than simply check out books and make sure everyone stays quiet in the library. They can’t even do that if they’re assigned to regular classroom duty. This hemorrhaging of library positions continues despite a dozen years of studies that prove how much impact librarians have in fostering student literacy.
Causes and possible solutions
On closer examination, complaints about budget cuts mean cuts from the requested level of spending.
If actual spending goes up, but not as much as requested, people complain about cuts. Nonetheless, state funding is less now than it was in the not too distant past.
Whenever schools (along with police departments and other government services) want to rally support for greater state funding, they threaten draconian cuts to the most visible and cherished programs. There always seems to be money to fund the administration’s pet projects.
I for one get sick of hearing people proclaim that they want nothing more than the best possible outcome for students. Whether it’s politicians, school boards, or teachers’ unions, they demonstrate by their actions that they do in fact have higher priorities.
School librarians, like other educational specialists, have long had to conduct formal advocacy programs to persuade school boards that they are necessary for the outcomes everyone claims to want.
They stress the differences between professional librarians and paraprofessionals. They produce studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of good school libraries. They point out specific ways that what they do enhances the work of both students and teachers.
These efforts increasingly fall on deaf ears.
Sue Doherty of the Brockton schools advocates a couple of other tactics. For one thing, schools could never replace teachers with paraprofessionals and expect them to teach. Yet that is exactly what so many schools are doing to their librarians.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association is exploring whether allowing paraprofessionals to work without professional supervision violates federal education regulations.
She also notes that some teachers’ unions have begun to frame the issue in terms of social justice. After all, it’s the most cash-strapped districts that must dispense with the “luxury” of professionally staffed school libraries. The lack of opportunities to use a good library falls disproportionately on the most disadvantaged students.
Meanwhile, take a good look at your school board. Does it spend its money on administrators, purchase flashy new equipment before studying its suitability, or otherwise demonstrate that teachers and educational outcomes take second place? Vote in a new one.