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Checking Out

Budget hawks see library programs as an easy cut, but what's the cost to student achievement?


By John Rosales

The librarian doll on Cathy Collins desk has her hair in a tight bun, wears sensible shoes, and when you flip a switch protruding through her dark conservative jacket, her miniature arm lifts to touch a tiny finger to her lips to shush you.


Cathy Collins (at right) with her fellow educational specialists at Sharon High School.

“The image of librarians has always been loaded with stereotypes,” says Collins, a veteran librarian-media teacher at Sharon High School in Sharon, Massachusetts. “The stereotype doesn't fit my dancing, hiking, world-traveling personality, but I can live with it.”

Collins says real-life school media specialists are not Marian the Librarian from The Music Man. Far from it. Today’s school librarian is a dynamic, Internet-savvy collaborator with everyone on campus. They collaborate with teachers on lesson plans, write grants in conjunction with administrators, and instruct students on research methods with new media.

Yet, because they work behind the scenes, librarian positions are often targeted by legislators looking for a fast way to balance the budget—to the detriment of student learning.

“Sadly, the school library is increasingly becoming simply a warehouse for outdated materials and outdated technology, as opposed to a vibrant center of collaborative, inquiry-based, cutting-edge learning,” says Collins, a National Board Certified teacher and library media specialist.

“Research indicates that students in schools with fully staffed and funded libraries learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized tests than their peers in schools with inadequately staffed and funded libraries,” she says.

The School Library Journal - Job Outlook, reports that Massachusetts has one school librarian to approximately 1,500 students, below the national average of one librarian to 916 students. According to School Libraries Work!, a Massachusetts School Library Association study conducted in 19 U.S. states and Ontario between 1999 and 2007, there is a significant link between a strong school library program and student achievement.  That is, achievement is highest in schools with full-time, certified media specialists. Other research shows that in the absence of poverty, the quality of a school library is the best predictor of reading scores.

But despite the research, many states continue to starve library programs. California, where Collins worked for two years before her time in Massachusetts, ranks 51st in the nation (behind Puerto Rico) with one librarian to 5,124 students. In “Statistics about California Schools,” produced in 2010 by the California Department of Education, only 24 percent of California schools had credentialled media specialists on campus. This figure is expected to drop even more in the current financially distressed economy.

Cutting library resources and media specialist positions will have long-term negative effects on student learning. The American Association of School Librarians recently published, Standards for the 21st Century Learner, which describes a range of real-world problem-solving abilities students need to develop. Locating, evaluating, and synthesizing information from a variety of print and online sources is particularly important to today’s students who will soon be competing in a global job market.

Libraries are centers of learning with a complex mission to not only prepare students for academic life, but also enable them to think critically and independently, say Douglas Achterman, a media specialist at San Benito High School in Hollister, California, and a member of the San Benito High Teachers Association.

“A strong library allows for student-centered learning,” he says. “This is tied to goals for students to become life-long learners.”

Achterman prides himself in helping students take charge of their assignments based on resources he can provide.

“We give them tools that solve problems and some choice over where their assignment goes,” he says. “If you give students choices over their learning, it leads to more powerful results.”

Achterman published a dissertation in 2008 titled, “Haves, Halves and Have-Nots: School libraries and student achievement in California.” He found a correlation between well-run school libraries and student achievement.

“Any school or district that decides not to invest in school library programs must account for that decision in terms of the public charge of equitable access to a quality education for all public school students,” he states in the document. “At a time when achievement on standardized tests is so strongly weighted in assessing the overall success of schools, investment in a robust school library program should be a primary goal.”

Collins, a member of the Sharon Teachers Association, says she would have liked the opportunity to show California legislators Achterman’s dissertation as her “librarian’s recommended reading for the week.”

“That was my California dream,” she says. “Instead, I ended up in a California nightmare that reduced school library sources to such substandard levels that many districts no longer have full-time librarians.”