There's Little National Data About School Librarians. What Happened?

The only two targeted efforts to collect detailed information about school libraries and librarians ended in 2012.
From a national perspective, school libraries are largely data-less at the moment—a state of affairs that would be utterly unthinkable to public or academic library leaders. Here’s why: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Common Core of Data staffing counts used in my SLJ article “School Librarian, Where Art Thou?” is the only data about school libraries that the federal government collects from all schools and districts. That’s the sole source we’ve had since 2012, the final year of two other much more detailed national efforts to collect information on school libraries and librarians. School library advocates need solid data. Changing this status quo should be a priority. Of those two surveys, the more substantial, longer-running effort was the Survey of School Library Media Centers (SSLMC) conducted as part of the Schools and Staffing Surveys (SASS) program of the NCES. Beginning in 1993–94, the SSLMC was one of SASS’s sample surveys of districts, schools, and educators, with subsequent surveys in 1999–2000, 2003–04, 2007–08, and 2011–12. These five comprehensive surveys included questions on facilities and policies, staffing, technology and information literacy, and school library collections and expenditures. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) conducted six annual surveys with voluntary participants from 2007–12. These addressed similar topics:  staff activities, hours and staffing, collection size, technology, visits, and expenditures. The final survey included a supplementary report about filtering. Why did they end? For similar reasons. While both organizations provided free reports summarizing overall survey results, neither offered online tools to facilitate free, timely access to individual library data—the kind of comparative information that might have informed school librarians and decision-makers. The reasons why access wasn’t available differed, but the results were the same. People participate in surveys on a “what’s in it for me” basis. Once participants figure out that there isn’t enough in it for them from their viewpoint, they tend to bow out and invest their time and energy elsewhere. The SASS system also contained a fundamental flaw: Most of those surveys included institutional questions and personal ones—ones about the library and ones directed to librarians personally—and were therefore subject to NCES’s stringent privacy policies. Also, anyone who wished to use the data files had to purchase a license from NCES and meet strict requirements for maintaining data security and privacy. I was part of one effort by school library folks to try to explain to NCES why this situation was untenable.  We asked if it would be possible to separate the institutional data from the personal and offer a public-use file. The answer was no. As with so many large-scale surveys, the timeliness of the SASS data was another obstacle to its use. The SASS surveys were mostly conducted at four year intervals, and it usually took as many years to see reporting on the results. In short, by the time even summary data came out, it was considered too old to be very useful. Thus, potential data users were discouraged by at least two factors:  the inaccessibility of case-by-case data and the untimely releases of summary data. The reasons that the AASL School Libraries Count Survey ended are less clear. Certainly, case-by-case data access was also an issue. Summary data reports were released on a timelier basis. However, from 2008, the survey’s second year, the number of responses each year dropped steadily. Like many associations that collect data from their members and others, AASL regarded this data as proprietary. As problematic as these school library surveys were, they were at least something. The bottom line is that unlike public and academic libraries, school libraries have access to neither a methodologically solid federal census or sample survey nor an association-based survey that collects voluntary data. The SASS system’s replacement—the greatly simplified National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS)—includes staffing questions that mostly duplicate the CCD counts of librarians and support staff.  Like SASS, NTPS is only being conducted as a sample survey, not a national census of schools, and asks for full- and part-time head counts rather than full-time equivalents. Currently, there is neither a public-use data file nor a report on the first NTPS, for the 2015-16 school year. The practice of releasing only restricted-use files continues, despite its obvious hindrance of data access and use. Ideally, NCES should establish a new, more viable survey conducted regularly and reported in a timely way. Intuitive tools facilitating access to school-by-school data would improve the odds of long-term success. Establishing a new mandate for NCES will require considerable political effort and, very likely, new funding. Our work is cut out for us.
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Tricia Snyder

Can AASL find a way to collect data in a timely way? Or can states take it on and report the data to AASL?

Posted : Mar 19, 2018 06:29

Keith Curry Lance

Tricia, while I cannot speak for AASL, I can share some perspective and personal views. Considering the challenges facing AASL and other ALA divisions, expecting them to pick up the slack from NCES is not a realistic option. The best any division has been able to do historically is to collect voluntary data. That’s not going to enable us to monitor the changing status of school libraries and librarians. We need “universe” data—data on all libraries and librarians—or, failing that, a very rigorous and robust sample survey that is truly representative of the universe. Grab bag data isn’t going to cut it. Also, personally, I don’t think we should let NCES off the hook. Around 2007-08, NCES dropped the annual surveys of public libraries and state library agencies on the argument that they needed to focus their resources on libraries directly involved with educational institutions—i.e., school and academic (college and university) libraries. (Fortunately, IMLS was funded to continue the dropped surveys.) Then, in 2012, NCES dropped its long-running surveys of school and academic libraries, replacing them—theoretically—with a handful of questions in larger surveys—ones from which we have yet to see any data or reports. Collecting this kind of data nationwide is a Federal government responsibility. No association or other organization has the wherewithal to do it adequately. Back in the late 1980s, we got legislation passed to make NCES responsible for library data collection—all of it. I’m talking about basic descriptive data that allow us to speak with authority about the size, shape, and status of libraries. During the time since, NCES has not been given budget increases to enable it to maintain all of its responsibilities. So, they were forced to cut something. My guess is that restoring this mandate will require new funding specifically assigned to them for this purpose. It’s worth noting that, at present, there are no NCES staff assigned full-time to library data collection or analysis—and probably few, if any, who spend any time on it at all. Also, AASL no longer has a standing committee for research and statistics. Metaphorically speaking, this tennis ball is in nobody’s court—there are no players on the field on either side of the net; the ball is just laying on the ground being ignored by passersby. Furthermore, researchers need complete, valid, and reliable data—quality data, public data—with which to work. Voluntary data collected and controlled by associations will always be proprietary in nature. That’s not good for the profession long-term either.

Posted : Mar 19, 2018 11:43

David Loertscher

It sounds to me like the ALA Council needs to take this issue up and direct the ALA Washington Office to include a request for funding in its legislative agenda. Perhaps our school library reps to Council could take this on and should be able to get it passed since it affects all types of libraries. So sad that AASL dropped the Research Committee. Keith and I were on it for 20 plus years and met with the fed folks regularly on this issue. Ignorance on stuff like this does us no favors!

Posted : Mar 27, 2018 06:53

Alice Graves

When I was in library school I wrote a paper on this and cited the work of Keith Curry Lance (above) and others. There were many studies starting in the 1960s. It seems to me that if it was indicated before 2012 that students whose schools have a professional librarian are more successful throughout their academic careers, do better on standardized tests, become lifelong readers, and perform better in college, why would it be different after 2012? I am now a medical librarian and all the studies showing that hospital librarians (a dying breed) add to better patient outcomes and SAVE money for hospitals were done prior to 2005. So much has changed in libraries since then; most are electronic now. Where are the new studies?

Posted : Mar 27, 2018 06:42



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