Sometimes we overlook the simplest things. Much of the talk of school reform has focused on merit pay, charter schools. and achievement tests. But actually, there is one obvious thing we can do to improve our students' education, especially in the most impoverished schools. We can support well-staffed, well-stocked school libraries.
It seems like a no-brainer. For students' reading skills to improve, they need to read. They need to have lots of access to books and technology. They need to feel comfortable around books, talk about books, and associate books with positive interactions. They need the support of librarians who can match them up with the right books, bring guest authors into the school, create book clubs, help them access electronic books, guide them to online book discussions, help them get past the digital divide by providing Internet access and information literacy training, and connect their teachers with the latest tools.
And we know this works -- study after study has shown that schools with well-stocked, well-staffed libraries have higher achievement test scores. And yet, perplexingly, across the nation, librarian positions are being cut; elementary libraries have no librarian, librarians are spread among multiple schools, and libraries are being closed due to lack of staff, or opened only a few hours a day, manned by the occasional teacher. A recent Huffington Post article documented the extent of cuts, and a grassroots Google map visualizes the devastating reductions to students' libraries across the nation.
In his call-to-action blog post , "A Librarian in Every School, Books in Every Home: A Modest Proposal," Bob Peterson decries the cuts in library staffing in Milwaukee schools despite the fact that "African American 4th graders in Wisconsin (most of whom live in Milwaukee) had the lowest reading scores in the nation."
Peterson, like many of us, knows that the research shows the importance of librarians to student literacy:
"According to researcher and linguistics expert Stephen Krashen: research shows school libraries are related to better reading achievement. The reason for this is obvious: Children become better readers by reading more, and for many children, the library is the only place they have access to books."
Yet, a multitude of studies, such as those by Ruth Small on New York State School Libraries and Library Media Specialists, or a recent California study by Douglas Achterman or plethora of other statewide studies by Keith Curry Lance and others all show that "School libraries are a stronger indicator of student success than class size, experience of teacher, number of computers or location of school."
In fact, the Pennsylvania study (conducted by Lance), "Measuring Up to Standards:The Impact of School Library Programs & Information Literacy in Pennsylvania Schools", concluded that:
"(1) the size of a school library's staff and collection is the best predictor of academic achievement; (2) students who score higher on standardized tests come from schools with more library staff and more books, periodicals, and videos regardless of other factors, including economic ones; (3) among school and community predictors, the size of the school library staff and collection is second only to the absence of at-risk conditions, particularly poverty; and (4) reading scores tend to increase by 10-15 points when all school library predictors are maximized ."
There are some heroic efforts to address the deplorable state of many of the country's inner city school libraries. Efforts like the inspiring one by the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City, which was started in the hopes of "reinventing the library for elementary students," says Lonni Tanner, who heads special projects at the Robin Hood Foundation.
As Jane Kolleeny reports it in the Architectural Record, in 1998, Tanner and architect Henry Myerberg visited school libraries in New York City and discovered rundown, outdated libraries, which they found unacceptable. The solution -- a project drawing innovative design teams to renovate aging libraries. "You can't change all the classrooms in a school, but you can make a library -- which takes only 5 percent of the physical space of a school, but has a 100 percent influence," says Myerberg. "That's a great rate of return."
And one of the key elements of the Robin Hood foundation's efforts besides innovative redesign? They require that any renovated library be fully staffed with a professional librarian and library aide, recognizing that a library is not simply a warehouse of materials, but a vital learning center for a school.
The result of this decade long partnership between the Robin Hood Foundation and New York Department of Education (and innovative partnerships with architects and designers in New York) has been the creation of 50 dynamic inventive library spaces that serve as the intellectual heart of their schools. By recreating this one educational space in the school -- a space that every student has access to -- and staffing it well -- the Robin Hood foundation is transforming the atmosphere and academics of the entire school.
And how has a renovated and staffed library affected students at one elementary school? Just as you might expect -- they now feel valued by their community. The principal of PS 106, Robert Flores, sums it up in an Edutopia article about the project: "Now, they've got a good attitude. Our kids think they're special. And they think they have the best library in the world."
Another recent community effort to support libraries is the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) Open Books Open Minds initiative which has plans to staff, renovate, and stock Philadelphia's elementary school libraries until professional librarians can be restored. Currently only 20 percent of Philadelphia elementary school libraries are staffed by librarians and some of the rest are actually closed. What message do we send to students in those schools about literacy when we close their libraries? In just one year, Open Books Open Minds has re-opened four libraries and provided staffing for two more, as well as adding 25,000 books to the libraries.
Efforts often even have to be made at the local campus level; Keisa Williams, librarian at Monarch Academy Elementary in Oakland, California (where 93 percent of her students have English as their second language, and 88 percent of her students are on free lunch services) set up a page on Donors Choose.org to collect funds and materials for much needed, unfunded library materials for her students.
But libraries shouldn't be a luxury in schools with struggling students; rather, they are a critical part of the literacy support team. How better to show our struggling readers that they are special and that we care about them as vital contributors to our communities, than by creating beautiful, well-stocked and technology infused libraries for them to read, learn, and create in?
If you want to help your school succeed, perhaps libraries are the best place to start. Monies spent on libraries have a big payoff in terms of student achievement, and benefit every single student in a school. And when study after study has demonstrated the success of students in schools with well-equipped libraries, how can we continue to ignore the powerful effects of school libraries on student literacy and self-esteem? Surely, like the Robin Hood Foundation, we can show our students how important their literacy is to us as a nation.
For more information about the Robin Hood foundation project, check out The LIbrary Book: Design Collaborations in the Public Schools by Anooradha Siddiqiti or The Robin Hood Foundation Library Project.
Carolyn Foote's blog can be found at Not So Distant Future.