November 20, 2017

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Opinion: State Legislation and Parent Advocates Must Bridge Skills Gap

NACE study

Click image to see NACE 2014 study.

Being information literate is one of the top five most important skills to employers, according to ”The Job Outlook for the Class of 2014” report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). However, a  2014 Project Information Literacy (PIL) study, “How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join The Workplace,” reveals that while newly hired college graduates have computer know-how and can input a few key words using a search engine, their information literacy skills don’t exhibit problem-solving, patience, and evaluation skills.

Possessing employable information literacy starts well before college. Some states, including New York and Oregon, have legislation in place intended to bolster student information literacy and put certified school librarians in schools. However, New York State, which recently ordered New York City’s Department of Education to comply with minimum certified librarian staffing requirements, is a prime example of how, when push comes to shove, policy doesn’t necessarily play out into practice in schools.

OregonStateLibraryPicture

Oregon State Library in Salem, OR. Photo courtesy of Oregon State Library.

However, having school library policy in place is a necessary launch pad to support information literacy from the get go. For example, the state of Oregon passed the Strong School Libraries Act (House Bill 2586) in 2009 (which became law in 2010), and now school districts must account for “strong school library programs” in their district continuous improvement plans (CIPs) that they submit to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE). Submissions are currently on a three-year rotation. In December 2013, ODE updated the related Oregon Administrative Rule (OAR), 581-022-0606, and around the same time, revealed the updated CIP which included two school library indicators.

Oregon is a state that needs self-assessment: the number of licensed school librarians in the state has dropped from 818 full-time equivalents in 1980 to only 144 in 2013, a decrease of 82 percent, says Jennifer Maurer, school library consultant at Salem’s Oregon State Library. Meanwhile, the number of students per librarian has increased significantly: in 1980 there was one librarian per 547 students, compared with almost 3,915 students per librarian in 2013, an increase of 615 percent.

Candace Watkins

Candace Watkins

Candice Watkins, director of the Dora Badollet Library at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, OR—and president of the Oregon Library Association—says she’s seen the skills gap [in Oregon] first hand and points to the lack of certified librarians in schools as the culprit.

“One of the good things about the Common Core… is that information literacy is sprinkled throughout,” says Watkins, “… the standards are great, but the infrastructure for getting our kids up to the standards is lacking.”

Certified library staff is not mandated by Oregon’s Strong School Libraries Act, but it should become difficult over time for districts to ignore the library indicator that addresses providing “instruction in information literacy and research proficiencies” if there is no library instruction occurring in the district, says Maurer. The OAR that covers school library programs, 581-022-1520, is vague about school library staffing. However, a document created by the Oregon Department of Education staff to support district employees completing CIPs indicates that “the evidence is clear that district policy and hiring practice should favor placing a full-time, certified school librarian in each school library.”

Passing legislation alone isn’t the cure, parent and library activist Dawn Prochovnic, from Beaverton, OR, has found. After budget cuts eliminated all of the certified librarians in her kids’ school district in 2012, she says the district was able to regain most of its financial stability through a local levy and increased state funding. However, the school librarian positions weren’t reinstated. Instead, three certified librarians currently oversee library services for 40,000 students in 51 schools.

Dawn Prochovic

Dawn Prochovic

Prochovnic, recounts, in a September 2014 blog post, that during a recent School Library Advocacy Council meeting, one of the mothers there asked what her daughter was missing out on without librarians in the school.

“Your daughter is missing out on the Newbery Club, and a professionally administered Oregon Battle of the Books program,” Prochovnic replied, “…deep literature studies and lunchtime book clubs (and in some cases the ability to enter the library during lunchtime and before/after school because the library assistants are often assigned to supervise the lunchroom and/or playground)… school author visits that are tied to and embedded in school-wide curriculum and carefully procured book collections that are developed with your child’s… interests in mind… and she is missing out on her own personal librarian putting a book into her hand and saying, ‘You are going to love this book. I can’t wait until you can read it.'”

“There’s a sense that if there are books in a room, a person to check them out, a place where kids can Google things, and a classroom teacher, then the kids have what they need,” she says. “But you’ve lost your subject matter expert.”

Part of the problem, library advocates find, is that the debate is being incorrectly framed as a choice between books and technology, rather than an overarching mission to teach information literacy skills and place the task in the hands of subject matter experts—certified librarians. It takes unified advocacy to pass and enforce school library legislation, like in the case of New York State. It also takes parents, like Prochovnic, taking a stand and working together with librarians and teachers and organizational groups to make the difference. “We have to have parents saying ‘my kid is worth this,’” said Terri Grief, president of the American Association of School Librarians.


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.

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