What You Can Do To Support School Libraries In Crisis

As the leader of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and an educator, I am struck by the lack of support for school libraries from federal and local governments. Do decision makers fully realize how their lack of support will hinder the education of America's next generation? Due to the lack of funding for school libraries, students are at risk of not having some of the most critical 21st century skills needed to compete in the global marketplace.

There is a common misconception that technology replaces school libraries and school librarians. Rather, in reality the explosion of technology and information access makes having full-time access to a state certified school librarian and school library program even more critical for today's learners. There is an entire new skill set today's students will need as they enter the workplace, and school librarians are the leaders in helping teach these skills to students.

Just recently the AASL, a division of the American Library Association, asked parents, educators and school librarians to share their stories on how deep budget cuts have impacted their schools. In Dickinson, North Dakota, books and reference materials are so outdated that high school students only have access to hundreds of books with average copyright dates as old as the mid-1960s. Schools from Arizona, Idaho and Illinois have also suffered the same fate.

Cuts are not only affecting print collections, but also technology resources. In Tucson, Arizona, students at Sunnyside High School attempt to use computers more than eight years old in the school library to work on research papers and projects, as well as apply for scholarships and admission to colleges. With the ever-increasing demand to use technology to create and share information in school, students need access in order to prepare themselves for their future.

But the most serious cuts go beyond library materials and technology and slice into the very heart of the educational process itself, resulting in the elimination of school librarians. California has the highest ratio of students to librarians in the country, and Ohio has eliminated more than 20 percent of their library positions.

Cuts to school librarian positions betray an ignorance of the key role school librarians play in a child's education, especially in this era of Google, when today's students are flooded with an unprecedented volume of information. It's not enough for children to know how to read - they must be proficient critical thinkers. There is an assumption that today's students know how to effectively and ethically use the technology that is becoming pervasive in our society. But, the reality is that all too often today's students lack the ability to analyze information found online. They also tend to believe the first thing they find - whether it is good information or not. School librarians empower students to question the validity and accuracy of all information they find. They also help students to know how to ethically use what they find in their work, giving students the 21st century skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

The value of school librarians has been measured in countless studies demonstrating that strong school library programs help students learn more and score higher on standardized achievement tests. For example, according to data from the Alaska State Library, at the elementary level, four out of five schools (80 percent) with full-time librarians had more students who earned proficient or above proficient test scores on the California Achievement Tests (CAT5) tests for reading, language arts and mathematics. In schools with no librarian, fewer than three out of five (less than 60 percent) achieved higher test scores.

Similar results appeared at the secondary level. Nine out of 10 schools (90 percent) with full-time librarians had more students who earned proficient or above proficient test scores on the CAT5 tests for reading, language arts and mathematics. In schools with no librarian, only about half (slightly more than 50 percent) of the students achieved higher test scores.

In Florida, elementary schools where library programs are staffed 60 hours per week or more, there is a 9 percent improvement in test scores over those staffed less than 60 hours.

How can you support your school library? Make sure your school has a state-certified school librarian. Some schools have replaced librarians with aides to keep the school library doors open, diminishing the level and quality of instruction and projects afforded to students. Make sure to be involved in the budget process of the school. Ensure that school board members and school administrators know that school libraries and school librarians are a critical part of the school ecosytem.

You can ask members of Congress to get involved. The reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is underway, a comprehensive education bill authorizing the Department of Education's programs for elementary and secondary education. Unfortunately this legislation does not call for schools to have an effective school library program or any dedicated funding. Parents, educators and students can contact their Congressional leaders and ask that they support quality education by providing funding for school library resources and their staff.

We can't turn our backs on America's youth. We must remember that a well-funded school library program staffed by a state certified school librarian is essential to preparing today's students for their future!