Last April, after I’d criticized my congressman—Jim Himes of District 4 in Connecticut—in a column, he asked if we could meet for a “deep dive” on education issues so he could understand why they have become so polarizing.
During our meeting, I asked him this question:
If we truly care about literacy, why are we spending so much money on standardized testing when our high needs schools don’t have functioning libraries with a certified media specialist?
His response was to ask me if there is research to justify the salary of a media specialist. My answer was a resounding “Yes!”
There is ample research, and I gathered much of it myself from existing studies while also conducting my own informal online research questionnaire for school librarians and librarians.
Here is what my research tells us:
It tells us children in poverty grow up with fewer books in the home and less access to bookstores and public libraries than their higher Supplemental Education Services counterparts (Neuman and Celano, 2001).
It tells us that even after for adjusting for factors such as parental education, father’s occupation, and social class, the impact of having books available in the home is as strong a predictor of school success as socioeconomic status (Evans, Kelley, Sikora, and Treiman, 2010). Despite this, Congress substantially reduced funding for organizations like Reading is Fundamental, which provide books to populations in need.
A substantial body of research—34 studies to be exact—known as the “School Library Impact Studies,” which includes data from 23 states and one Canadian province, was summarized by Debra Kachel, project director of the Pennsylvania School Library Project, et al (2013) at Mansfield University, and provides a wealth of evidence about the positive correlation between properly staffed and funded school libraries and improved student achievement.
“Although the effects of poverty still remain a primary force in determining student academic success, state after state showed that such socioeconomic conditions could not explain away the impact of school library programs, especially school library staffing, funding, and quality collections,” Kachel concludes.
If we’re trying to close the achievement gap, library cuts make even less sense. According to Keith Curry Lance, co-creator of the Library Journal Index of Public Library Service and a long-time state and national leader in the development and use of public library statistics, his 2011 SLJ report with Linda Hofschire, a research analyst at the Library Research Service at Colorado State Library, was the first to document the fact that, on average, states that gained school librarians between the midpoint of the post 9/11 recession (2004-2005) and the next recession (2008-2009) had significantly better reading scores than states that lost school librarians during the same interval. Furthermore, among states that gained librarians, the test score improvements for poor, black, and Hispanic students were greater than for all students. As for English language learners, states that gained librarians maintained their reading scores, while states that lost librarians saw their scores drop noticeably.
The SLJ findings could not be explained away by overall school staffing trends, and an additional study by the Library Research Service (Lance and Hofschire, 2012) noted that the findings persisted regardless of the socioeconomic status of students.
I received 128 responses to my questionnaire from librarians representing 24 states. With a few rare exceptions, the overall picture reveals library policy decisions that make little or no sense. Library budgets, if there are any at all, have been cut dramatically.
Alice Sajdera, a school library media specialist in Lincoln, Massachusetts, said that over the last five years, her budget has shrunk by 30 percent. That makes it difficult to meet the needs of her students.
“At current levels, we maintain the collection; we don’t grow it. I can’t meet the demands of the significant changes to the curriculum.”
That’s for the libraries that remain. A librarian in Ohio reported that her district closed all of its K–8 libraries. In one district in New Hampshire, “ Technology integrators’ were hired for the elementary schools instead of librarians. This follows the building of new schools that have ‘book collections’ rather than libraries. The emphasis is on technology and iPads. The ‘book collections’ are staffed by volunteers or paraprofessionals.”
From Delaware: “District is considering elimination of all library positions and replacing librarians with non-certified ‘technology specialists.’ Administration states that libraries are obsolete in a technology age.”
This is the latest wrongheaded policymaker trend: dismantling libraries into technology “commons,” based on the mistaken notion that digital learning provides a magical cure-all for the achievement gap. As Neuman and Celano observed in their book Giving our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Children and the Development of Information Capital (Teachers College Press, 2012) based on their 10-year Philadelphia library study:
“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it…With the spread of educational technology, the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”
From Massachusetts I heard: “We have closed about six libraries completely in my district in the past four years. One was turned into a ‘high tech’ center. All the books were removed and they now use it for online classes and lab time.”
I received a similar story from a librarian in Illinois: “The high school library was converted to a learning commons. The primary focus of the commons is to provide tutoring services and study tables for students who are not meeting academic standards. The library certified staff was cut from two to one. The fiction collection was moved across the hall to the testing center. The district was attempting to support the needs of the students who were not ‘passing’ the state test.”
There is no evidence that turning libraries into “drill and kill” facilities to improve test scores will turn students into critical thinkers or lifelong readers. In fact, the school impact studies and the Philadelphia library study tell us that doing so may well have a deleterious effect, particularly on our most vulnerable populations.
Kids need library resources and librarians to teach them media literacy. It’s not enough to hand a kid a Chromebook or an iPad and to think they can learn by Googling. A respondent from New York pointed out, “…a librarian is uniquely qualified to meet Common Core State Standards. With emphasis on research, reflection, analyzing, interpretation, etc, librarians have the ability to share multiple sources and teach evaluation.”
With limited budgets, how do we justify the cost? My question for policy makers: how do we not justify the cost, given the overwhelming research on this issue? As a librarian from Massachusetts so rightly observed, “The key to all education is literacy. This is what we overlook when libraries are cut or closed.”
What we can cut is the time and money we’re spending on standardized testing. One magnet school in Hartford, Connecticut spent 59 out of 180 days in testing last year. With spending on standardized testing fees up 30 percent in five years, and more than doubling in some of the larger urban districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, school districts have started to ask tough questions about which tests are necessary, and what, exactly, they tell educators about students.
Educational researcher and linguistics expert Stephen D. Krashen suggests scrapping the massive expense of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for measurement purposes. The NAEP is administered to small groups who each take a portion of the test every few years. Results are extrapolated to estimate how larger groups would score. There’s no teaching to the test or test prep, because the tests are zero stakes.
“If we are interested in a general picture of how children are doing, this is the way to do it. If we are interested in finding out about a patient’s health, we only need to look at a small sample of their blood, not all of it,” Krashen suggests. “The money saved by vastly reducing standardized testing can be invested in improving libraries in high-poverty areas: If we do this, we will be investing in solving the problem, not just measuring it.”
Our children have been suffering for over a decade because policymakers have chosen to ignore the research on libraries and literacy. We can’t afford to let politicians play dumb any longer.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning novelist of books for young people and a political columnist for CTNewsJunkie.com. Her latest YA novel, Backlash, will be published by Scholastic in April 2015.