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Paul Horton: The War on Books II: Certified School Librarians Are the New Disappeared

Guest post by Paul Horton

See Part 1: In Defense of Books, here. 

I was raised to believe that librarians were my friends and I have never met one who didn't help me in some way. Just like you, I have met my share of shush Nazis, but the firm "quiet down" was always uttered to create a silence that benefited the thinking of the whole.

Silence created a pathway to something more important than noise--books. These librarians protected worlds of the imagination that I had yet to imagine, wondrous times and places beyond times and places, silences full of wonder.

Librarians are trained to ask great questions, to get to know kids and adults on their own terms to better guide aspiring readers, writers, and researchers to destinations unknown, on the other side of the bogs of doubt, frustration, and cynicism.

They know how to work magic, initiating minds, young and old, into the mysteries of mystery, the recesses of intuited shadows, and the openings of unexplored worlds. They are keepers of exquisite curiosity shops of the soul where algorithms dare not tread.

They understand that to read is to be human and that human potential can be imagined and explored through life-long reading. They are invested in this idea: everything they touch nurtures exploration of other worlds. They are also cultivators; they grow empathy, passion, curiosity, and knowledge.

To cut librarians out of an educational system is the equivalent of pulling up a Redwood by its roots--all great civilizations, or trees, for that matter, collect knowledge. Collection is a very human endeavor; we gather who we become. If we collect information, we will become information.

This is precisely what is being done to our educational system in the name of "reform."

In my city, Chicago, for example, school librarians are increasingly sacrificed at school budget tables along with art and P.E. teachers and school counselors. The idea that administrators should be forced to choose to have one educator and not another obscenely defines the greed of those who demand school resources in exchange for political support of politicians who support limitless privatization.

For every developer who gets city funding intended for public schools as part of a public-private partnership that will attract upper middle class tourists, public schools lose a few dozen precious librarians, art or P.E. teachers, or school counselors. That this is being done all over the country is a pathetic commentary on the current health of our "republic."

Citizenship, as defined by our country's revolutionaries, required above all, reading. Reading was and is the touchstone of informed citizenship. Reading widely allowed one to see beyond the ranting of demagogues who promoted "faction."

According to Tocqueville and other theorists of democracy, institutions were and are at the heart of a functioning democracy. Lending libraries have always been a fundamental democratic institution. Benjamin Franklin understood this, and when public schools were constructed in urban areas in the twentieth century, the school library extended the promise of American democracy into public schools. The idea was that public school students would have equal access to books of the sort that were collected in private collections or at the downtown, "athletic clubs." Moreover, the school library was intended to allow students to move beyond the rote learning required in traditional classroom settings, where fifty to sixty students would mark slates in unison.

The creation of school libraries reinforced the progressive idea of the community-centered school. Not only should students at the Chicago Laboratory Schools have access to a wealth of books, but the students attending public schools in the Maxwell Street neighborhood near Hull House should as well, as would those attending Schurz High School on the city's northwest side, where a young man named Pritzker explored worlds beyond his parents' imagination.

Now, many communities are backing away from the democratic promise that public libraries and public school libraries represent. In Chicago, our current mayor fought a battle to cut back on hours that public libraries were open.

Last summer, he cut school budgets so much that principals were forced to decide to eliminate or move "nonessential" staff. For some reason, "nonessential" staff includes certified librarians. Our mayor can cut public mental health care clinic budgets at the same time he creates bike-lanes for tech-savvy young professionals and he can cut school budgets to the bone to eliminate school librarians who would make the biggest difference in increasing reading and writing scores while he subsidizes a hotel and area complex to benefit his developer cronies. As the election cycle approaches, he is finding a few million to plug a few school budget holes to demonstrate that he really does care about schools.

When policymakers want to close or "turn around" schools they turn to big foundations like the Joyce Foundation to supply non-peer reviewed studies or manipulative "push polls" that are touched up and handed to editorial writers who change a word or two and print them.

But when policy makers simply want to find money in the budget to move elsewhere, they ignore the "think-tanks." For example, "The Joyce Approach to "Early Reading" is emphatic about creating "more effective policies and measures of student and teacher performance on important reading skills in grades pre-K-3." 

In other words, the Joyce Foundation will commission "studies" that will support privatization  (my translation). The same big bucks that fund the Joyce Foundation are the same big bucks that are gentrifying the Midwest's cities. They support charter schools to attract the upper middle classes back into near core areas of cities. In Chicago, for example, according to the book Mayor 1%, much of the money that is given to the Joyce Foundation comes from the Commercial Club members who have invested in gentrifying areas. (see also the Joyce Foundation's 990 form.)

The problem with the mayor's approach and the "care" of the Joyce Foundation is that there is an abundance of peer-reviewed evidence out there that indicates that removing certified librarians from libraries, especially in underserved communities, is absolutely the worst move that any policy maker or public official could make.

The real question is, when will policymakers listen to facts?

Here are some of the facts from some very rigorously conducted studies that are carefully controlled and that include significant data sets:

In 2011, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives commissioned a study in which 73 percent of the Keystone state's schools participated.  This study found that:

  • Quality school library programs significantly impact the most vulnerable students.
  • Students who are poor, minority, and have IEPs, but who have full-time librarians, are at least twice as likely to have "Advanced" writing scores as their counterparts without full-time librarians.
  • For all students, those with full-time librarians are almost three times as likely to have "Advanced" writing scores as students without full-time librarians. 
  • Consistently, students are less likely to score "Below Basic" on reading and writing in schools in which administrators, teachers, and librarians assess as "excellent" the library program's teaching of inquiry-based learning.
  • With a full-time librarian, students are more likely to score "Advanced" and less likely to score "Below Basic" on reading and writing tests.
  • Consistently, reading scores are better for elementary, middle, and high school students who have full-time certified librarians. In schools with full-time librarians, "Below Basic" scores not only improve, but improve more from elementary to middle to high school as well. 

Stephen Krashen, perhaps the country's foremost authority on language acquisition and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, summarizes the overwhelming literature that associates access to public, school libraries, and certified librarians to overcoming the impacts of child poverty in an article in the New England Reading Association Journal (Vol. 46, 2011) called, "Protecting Students Against the Effects of Poverty: Libraries." 

Peer reviewed studies that he summarizes find that:

  • Children of poverty have very little access to book at home and in their communities, with less access to good public libraries and bookstores.
  • Children of poverty attend schools with poorly supported classroom libraries.
  • Access to books is related to increased reading achievement.
  • Young people in homes with 500 books stay in school three years longer than children in bookless homes.
  • Of great interest is the finding that the effect of books in the home was about the same as the effect of parental education, twice as strong as the effect of the father's occupation, and stronger than the effect of standard of living, as measured by GDP.... In other words, the impact of access to books on school success is as strong as or stronger than economic factors.
  • Several studies confirm that children of poverty have little access to books at home or in their community; the school library may be the only source of books for these children.

Nothing could be clearer, given the mountains of evidence cited here and that can be accessed very easily, that a strong school library program staffed with certified librarians has a very positive effective on learning within underserved communities.

But things are clearly out of whack, as policy makers just don't want to alienate campaign donors who want public money for their pet development projects that require charter schools to increase the value of gentrifying areas.

My Chicago school district informants tell me that certified librarians are being moved out of libraries and that non-certified media specialists are taking their places in computer labs. In many charter and public schools, a designated "book room" is available who is not staff. Many librarians are teaching language classes even though their degrees are in library science. Teachers are being asked to purchase or solicit gifts of books for classroom libraries. In charter schools, no librarians or, in many cases, no libraries are a way to cut cost to protect profit margins. In public schools, principals are forced to give up librarians altogether, or "stretch them" to fill as many tasks as possible.

Perhaps in an effort to stave off further criticism, our mayor has endorsed plans to align public libraries with public schools. In this model, students should use nearby public libraries when facilities are not available in a public school. Many parents and librarians are concerned because of reports of adults watching porn in public libraries.

Whatever one may think about increased student use of public libraries, public policy makers should consider some very solid education research before they decide to replace any more certified full-time librarians.

Those of us with roots in the Midwest know that this is a bad smelling time of year out in the corn and soybean fields. The wind kicks up the dust, but it also spreads the unforgiving stench of the potent liquid fertilizer that we get noses full of. This whole business of getting rid of the very people who could make the biggest difference in underserved communities and schools stinks far worse.

What do you think? Are school libraries getting short shrift? 

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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