The loss of libraries and qualified librarians in the poorest schools has reached a critical mass. Yet those who promote a Science of Reading (SoR), often supporting online reading programs, never mention the loss of school libraries or qualified librarians.
Ignoring the importance of school libraries and certified librarians delegitimizes any SoR. Children need books, reading material, and real librarians in public schools. If reading instruction doesn’t lead to reading and learning from books, what’s the point? Why should children care about decoding words if there’s no school library where they can browse and choose reading material that matters?
How do school districts prioritize reading when they shutter the only access some students have to books? Who will assist students when qualified school librarians are dismissed?
Across the country, as noted below, public school districts have chaotically closed school libraries and fired librarians. They have done this despite the fact that school libraries and qualified librarians are proven positive factors in raising reading scores in children.
When recent NAEP scores appeared low, no one questioned how the loss of school libraries and librarians in America’s poorest schools could have accounted for lower scores. Instead, they obsessed over rising scores in Mississippi, likely due to holding third graders back.
The SoR fans criticize teachers, university education schools, and reading programs. Most are not classroom teachers and they appear to be taking children down a path towards all-tech reading programs.
Unlike the abundance of research showing the benefit of libraries and librarians, there’s no proven research that online reading programs will help children read better, especially if they have a reading disability.
We’ve known for years, that schools with quality school libraries and school librarians have students who obtain better test scores. Numerous research studies support the importance of libraries and librarians. You can find some of that research in the following links.
- Antioch University Seattle School Library Certification Program: School Library Research
- Library Research Service
A 2019 American Library Association found school libraries:
- can provide safe and nurturing environments when they’re open before, during, and after school.
- foster critical thinking, providing students with the skills they need to analyze, form, and communicate ideas in compelling ways.
- are learning hubs and homework help centers.
- students can use technology there to find the best information resources.
- school library programs instill confidence in reading, which is fundamental to learning, personal growth, and enjoyment.
- provide support for all subjects and grade levels.
- assist and partner with teachers, leading them to print and digital materials.
- help students with print and digital materials.
Elementary school librarians introduce young children to imaginative stories, fiction and nonfiction geared to a student’s interests, giving children a reason to enjoy reading.
What’s Happening to Save School Libraries and Librarians, Or Not?
Many states have transformed school libraries into computer labs or makerspaces. Librarians must take additional classes to keep their positions. These are no longer libraries.
Some school districts have reduced or eliminated school libraries in favor of partnering with city libraries and museums. They do this in the name of community schooling, or partnerships, claiming to save money and close gaps. See “Public Partners for Early Literacy: Library-School Partnerships Closing Opportunity Gaps” through The Urban Libraries Council, The Council of the Great City Schools, The Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. This could lead to school privatization.
“Finding Money for Your School Library When Times are Tough” provides suggestions how to keep a school library open, like collecting General Mills Box Tops for Education and slurping Campbell’s soup to get Campbells Labels for Education. Beg the Lions Club, Rotary, Kiwanis and other civic groups, with a convincing speech about the importance of books for students…really?
While nonprofits like EveryLibrary help raise money for school libraries, a noble endeavor, this country is wealthy enough to fund good libraries with qualified librarians for elementary, middle, and high school.
The heart of a public school is the school library run by qualified school librarians. Public schools shouldn’t have to rely on partners, public donors, or community fundraisers to get school libraries and certified librarians.
A Few of the Many Places that Have Lost School Libraries and Librarians:
New York City: A 2015 Education Week report, “Number of Libraries Dwindles in N.Y.C. Schools” notes that the number of N.Y.C. school libraries plummeted from nearly 1,500 in 2005 to fewer than 700 in 2014. The biggest drops happened in the three years before this time. Michael Bloomberg was mayor. Libraries were severely understaffed.
Philadelphia: This city has seen a drastic reduction of school libraries. The situation is dire. The Philadelphia Enquirer 2020 report, “You Should Be Outraged by the State of Philly Public School Libraries,” shows that, like other school districts, Philadelphia has had to resort to raising funds through donations to save its school libraries. Many schools have no library.
Michigan: Michigan has a known literacy crisis, but policymakers don’t put two-and-two together. Between 2000 and 2016, Michigan saw a 73% decline in school librarians. In 2019, they began retaining third graders with reading difficulties threatening children to “learn or else,” a reform with research stacked against it. Schools turned libraries into media centers and makerspaces. None of this is working out well.
California: California is one of the worst states for a lack of school libraries and qualified librarians. (Ahlfeld). In 2013-14, 4,273 California schools completed a survey representing 43 percent of schools. Of those responding to the survey, 84 percent have a place designated as the library, although staffing, collections, and programs range from exemplary to substandard. Sixteen percent of the schools didn’t have a library. Librarians were mostly found in high schools. Few schools in California have a certified school librarian. Some schools only open the library one day a week. Many elementary schools don’t have library services.
Oakland: In Oakland they’ve lost libraries, or they exist but they have old, outdated books. Signs on the wall tell students they are not allowed to check out books, and 30% of the original 80 school libraries have closed. Fourteen of the 18 high school libraries are gone. Sometimes the PTA provides volunteers for students to check out books.
Virginia: Some states permit schools to staff school libraries with volunteers, a common way to replace certified librarians. Teachers might help students check out books, or they have books for students to check out in their classrooms. Virginia avoided school library chaos in 2018 when the Virginia Association of School Librarians and the Virginia Library Association lobbied the state senate’s education committee helping to narrowly defeat a bill that would have removed regulations for qualified librarians at the middle and high school level. The Virginia House Education Committee defeated Senate Bill 261 in a 12-10 vote.
Chicago: In 2013, then Mayor Rahm Emanuel had the press take a picture of him in a school library discussing a funding increase to the school. The librarian had just lost their job! At that time it was reported that Chicago had 200 schools without a library, or the libraries were staffed by volunteers. The situation is still dire The recent teachers strike brought necessary change, but librarians worry they weren’t on the receiving end. About 80% of the 514 district-run schools are still without a librarian. There are only 108 full-time working librarians in the district, down from 454 librarians in the 2012–2013 school year, the year of the last Chicago teachers strike. But the recent strike did bring needed recognition to loss of school librarians and school libraries.
Arizona: Like so many places, Arizona has children who face poverty and don’t have access to reading material and literacy opportunities. But with only 140 certified school librarians, 57 book titles available for 100 students, and an average library budget of $960, Arizona school libraries are treading water.
New Jersey: In 2012, officials in New Jersey pondered whether librarians were necessary to help students when all students had to do was look up information online. But librarians are still critical to student success in elementary, middle, and high schools. In 2016, they reported a 20% drop in the number of school library media specialists or teacher-librarians in the state since 2007-2008. The New Jersey Library Association began a campaign Unlock Student Potential to address this serious problem. If you are concerned about the state of school libraries and librarians, this provides reports about the problems facing New Jersey.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: In 2015, The Charlotte Observer published “Are School Librarians Going Way of the Milkman?” by Ann Doss Helms over concern about the loss of librarians and media specialists. School administrators used the excuse that teachers could offer books in their classrooms and get students library cards to the public library. This weakens the school structure, and paves the way to school privatization.
Denver: As more students entered the Denver school system, in 2019, they saw a 60% drop in their school librarians despite a previous 2012 study showing that Schools that either maintained or gained an endorsed librarian between 2005 and 2011 tended to have more students scoring advanced in reading in 2011 and to have increased their performance more than schools that either lost their librarians or never had one. How could they ignore what worked?
Florida: In 2015, The Florida Times-Union reported “Media specialists (librarians) almost endangered species in Duval schools.”Librarians are called media specialists there, but 110 media specialists had dropped to 70, leaving only 68 librarians in elementary schools, one at a high school, and one left at a middle school. In 2018, the number of librarians lost included 73 in Duval County, 206 in Dade County, 78 positions in Pasco County, and 47 librarians lost in Polk County (Sparks & Harwin).
Houston: The loss of school librarians began around 2008-2009 school year and got so bad many put bumper stickers that said “Houston We Have a Librarian Problem.” Houston started with 168 librarians. By 2013, it had dropped to 97 serving 282 K-12 schools. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle told about children coming home without books to read in their backpacks. Their 320 student school didn’t have a well-stocked library or full-time librarian.
Ohio: In 2015, it was reported that Ohio had lost more than 700 librarian positions over a decade. In that same year, the School Library Journal posted this report, “OH Department of Education Will Vote to Purge School Librarian Requirement.”
It appears that an emphasis on decoding, without addressing the loss of school libraries and qualified librarians, is intentionally incomplete for a reason. We know the importance of a school library and qualified librarians to a well-functioning school. Blaming teachers and their education schools for poor student reading scores, while ignoring this loss, indicates that forces are at work to end public education and replace teachers with screens. The SoR focus looks to be about this, and should be seen for it’s real agenda.
Please feel free to share how libraries and librarians are doing in your school district.
Kelly Ahlfeld, “They Paved Paradise: School Librarians and School Libraries are disappearing and We Won’t Know What We’ve Lost Until It’s Gone.” Journal of Library Administration.” 59(8), 2019.
Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel, “Why school librarians matter: What years of research tell us,” Phi Delta Kappan. March 26, 2018.
Sarah D. Sparks and Alex Harwin, “Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds,” Education Week, 37 (33), May 16, 2018.
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