Californians Model How to Be Standards-Bearers for Strong School Libraries

December 7, 2010

It seems only fitting that a blueprint for putting strong school library programs back on the to-do lists of education leaders should emerge from California, which hasn’t significantly increased its fiscal support for school libraries in at least two decades. In fact, former ALA President Patricia Glass-Schuman characterized the state as the “worst of the worst” in terms of funding for school libraries in 1992.

A call went out on the discussion list of the California School Library Association in November to urge their school board members to attend a December 3 program at the California School Boards Association annual conference. The purpose of the “Model School Libraries and Student Achievement” program was not just to reiterate the direct link between strong school libraries and the rising grades of the students who use them. Rather, the call was meant to help school librarians reframe the argument for as many decision-makers as possible so they could see clearly what was in it for them to reinvigorate their districts’ school libraries.

Approved in September by the state board of education thanks to CSLA’s undaunted boosterism, California’s Model School Library Standards might also prove to be a focal point around which beleaguered school librarians elsewhere can regroup. Although not mandatory, the standards quantify what excellence in library service looks like: one credentialed full-time teacher-librarian for every 785 students; a weekly minimum of at least 36 hours of student access to the school library and the delivery of 20 hours of library instruction; a class-size-worth of library computers; and a collection of at least 28 library books per student with the annual addition of one book per student in K–8 and .5 books per student in high school.

Unfortunately, for many a school district around the country, such goals may seem too lofty to attain in the foreseeable future. For instance:

  • Massive deficits in Michigan have forced the layoff or reassignment to classrooms of hundreds of school librarians over the past several years, with many districts having no credentialed school librarians at all. Tim Staal, executive director for the Michigan Association for Media in Education, said in the November 27 Jackson Citizen Patriot that the ailing Michigan economy is not the only culprit; additionally, many districts have shifted from North Central Accreditation standards, which encourage schools to employ certified librarians, to No Child Left Behind certification.
  • School officials in Delaware, where 100 school librarians remain employed statewide, publicly lamented the layoffs of 25 credentialed librarians even as the decision makers proclaimed their preference for school library spaces over trained staff to teach patrons how to use and value the collections. “The critical piece is the place itself, what that can be for students and teachers,” Department of Education Deputy Secretary Dan Cruce said in the November 9 Wilmington News-Journal.
  • In a op-ed in the November 24 New York Newsday, Valley Stream (N.Y.) Central High School District Superintendent Marc Bernstein characterized as “antiquated” a state requirement “that all high schools have at least one full-time librarian and a minimum number of books.” Who needs such obsolete resources, Bernstein seemed to sniff rhetorically, “in this internet age.” The punchline: Bernstein’s essay was titled “What [Gov-elect Andrew] Cuomo Can Do to Improve Schools.”

Begin with data

CSLA brought decades of research about best practices to the table to compare with the sorry statistics about school library programs in California during the drafting of that state’s new model school library standards. School library groups elsewhere are marshaling their numbers as well.

  • The New Jersey Association of School Librarians is gathering documentation about the dire straits of school libraries there. On December 3 NJASL announced the publication of “One Common Goal: Student Learning” (PDF file), a study that details replicates the best-practice findings of Keith Curry Lance and others as well as the fiscal tightrope upon which New Jersey’s school libraries are balancing so precariously. “Our challenge is to change the incorrect public perception of a school library as a warehouse of books to a more accurate understanding of the school library program as an active teaching and learning environment,” explained NJASL President Judith Everitt.
  • In October, Pennsylvania school librarians were hailing the passage of a state house resolution that asks the Department of Education to complete a study by June 30, 2011, that is similar in scope to New Jersey’s. Since the 2007 abolishment of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Division of School Library Services, it’s become unclear how many school districts there still employ credentialed librarians—or have functioning libraries in which they could work, since school libraries are not mandated for any grade level.

While it’s hard enough to get decision-makers to agree about what constitutes an ideal service, it’s entirely another to make those ideals a reality. That’s where the “Model School Library Standards” presentation came in. According to past CSLA president Connie Williams, the panelists “built upon each other’s concepts and reiterated for the audience the importance of these things: access, staffing, responsibilities, and materials, and highlighted the necessity of full staffing—the library team—in order to make it work.”

School library leaders Doug Achterman, Barbara Jeffus, and Connie Williams took attendees from research on school libraries’ efficacy to concrete examples of how school librarians support the curriculum and teach critical thinking from kindergarten on. Long Beach Unified School District board member John McGinnis, along with LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, bore witness to their belief in the power of school libraries. This week, Steinhauser walked the walk, recommending December 7 that the Long Beach school board approve a revised school library policy that aligns the district with the model standards. [UPDATE: The policy passed unanimously.]

Of course, one roomful of school-board members swayed by a 75-minute conference program can’t transform an entire state’s school districts by themselves. That’s why CSLA Immediate Past-President Connie Williams is encouraging her colleagues to continue evangelizing about school libraries at other nonlibrary meetings. Educators from “all subject areas would be interested in learning more about how librarians can collaborate with them in the creation of dynamic lessons,” she stressed.


Joseph Janes

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Sophisticated search operator is a metaphor of modern life