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October 23, 2014

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Sara Stevenson: School Librarian Crusader

Give Sara Stevenson a computer and a cause—and you’ll be glad she’s on your side. The school

sarastevenson Sara Stevenson: School Librarian Crusader

School librarian Sara Stevenson in front of the White House.

librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin, TX is well-known in educational circles for her opinion pieces and letters to the editor which appear in her local Austin American-Statesman, and nationally in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She hopes her succinct and well-sourced points will give readers an educator’s point of view as they shape their own opinions about the educational reform movement.

Fans include author Diane Ravitch, who tweets about her pieces to the Twitter masses, and even Stevenson’s own colleagues, who she says may not feel as free to voice their opinions as she does.

“My principal has said, ‘Go for it,’” Stevenson says. “But I think there’s a lot of fear with the economy struggling and people with young children [who don’t want to lose their jobs]. I think I’m in a fortunate position to really speak out.”

And speak out she does. She considers the “letter to the editor” one of her favorite platforms, calling them her “therapy,” where she gets to “say my piece,” she says. While she has written a couple of pieces on libraries and education for her local paper, Stevenson says her real push came in 2011 when the Austin Independent School District planned to cut school librarians in secondary schools. Stevenson wrote an opinion piece, tweeted about the issue, and encouraged readers to write to the superintendent of schools. Three weeks later, the positions were reinstated—and a writing warrior was born.

The thread that runs through Stevenson’s pieces is educational reform—the push in our nation for more testing, rating teachers by how their students score on standardized exams, a rise of charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and the opinion that larger class sizes don’t matter if teachers are effective. The issue is bipartisan, believes Stevenson, citing that even President Obama’s Race to the Top grants, created to spur innovation and reform, encourage more testing. And she wonders why people, including Bill Gates, have become voices in this movement, superseding those in the trenches with real-world experience in education.

“Where are we in the discussion?” she asks. “Bill Gates is great guy, but why is he leading the discussion when his children go to private school?”

A former teacher, who’s now in her tenth year as a middle school librarian, Stevenson says she’s not against testing, explaining that evaluating where students stand can be both “useful and wonderful.”

Her objection is that the pendulum has shifted too far, with an emphasis only on programs that improve test scores, with other areas—even physical education—being dropped as extraneous. And while she has no plans to lay down her pen, Stevenson believes real change can only happen when more parties speak up in support—in particular, she says, students.

“Students say they’re sick of it, that they don’t want more testing,” she says. “I’d like to see high school students writing letters. That’s what I think some of the reformers and politicians have lost sight of—what’s good for kids.”

 

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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Comments

  1. Jeanette Larson says:

    I’ve always admired Sara’s willingness to speak up about library issues. Unfortunately so many school and public librarians are fearful. While there are rules about what city, county, and school district employees can do with regards to lobbying their own governing body, we have a right and obligation to speak up in ways that we can (as individuals instead of employees, for example) and to speak up on behalf of our colleagues who feel they can’t. Austin is proud of Sara!!

  2. Texas Parents says:

    Sara and Jeanette are correct when they refer to teachers’ reluctance to speak out against high-stakes testing. Fear of bullying from the administration and possible job loss are valid concerns. Sara is hoping that eventually high school students will come to their senses and find the courage to speak out. We hope that more parents will finally realize that the current system of high-stakes testing is immoral, costly and quite harmful to students. Administrators can bully and threaten parents, but they can’t fire us. We support teachers and their efforts to reduce testing and improve the quality of instruction in our Texas Public Schools.

  3. Betsy Crosby says:

    I am glad there are librarians like Sarah who write so well about the negative effects of testing. More parents need to become educated about the hours spent on testing preparation instead of actual learning. I am a retired teacher and librarian who is grateful that my adult children went to public school before NCLB testing.

  4. Our major problem in education is getting information to the public. The public only hears from reporters, who are often over-worked and therefore not well-informed, from politicians, who are given information by staff members who often tell them only what they think the politician wants to hear, and from ivory tower professors (like me) who know the research who lack real-world experience. Sara Stevenson’s excellent letters are a big part of the solution to this problem.

  5. Marie Slim says:

    Is Sara no longer a teacher now that she is a librarian? Help me understand.

  6. I witnessed as she so anxiously plunged into the district board meetings in Austin ready to speak on behalf of all librarians, really. She was willing to stay late to tell them how crucial librarians are to today’s youth and their education. The public school library is the last frontier left unscathed by state testing and full of pleasure reading for students during their school day! She was one of the librarians who became a beacon of energy and a bundle of wise advice to fellow colleagues. Your efforts help literacy, literature appreciation and its advocates everywhere.