Look it up! Why California needs better school libraries

by Carol Kocivar | June 11, 2023 | 0 Comments
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School libraries are laboratories for critical thinking

Quality school libraries have become very rare in California. Communities should be concerned about this trend. In this digital world, fiction masquerades as fact and research may be clouded with bias.

It might be tempting to think of school libraries as passé — a relic from the days when the best way to search for information involved card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal System. This is a profound misunderstanding of their function. School libraries with trained librarians play a critical role — distinct from classroom education — in preparing students to think for themselves. Strong school libraries help educators teach students how to confront the swirl of conflicting ideas. They are precisely what students need right now.

This post explains what school libraries do, why it matters, why California has fallen behind in providing students and educators with this important resource, and what might help make it better.

Shortage of professional school librarians

Across the nation — but especially in California — high quality school libraries with credentialed teacher librarians are becoming increasingly scarce. The recommended minimum number of certificated librarians in a school is 1 per 785 students. The actual number in California is approximately 1 librarian for every 9,667 students.

There is a connection between the quality of a school's library and how well students do in school.

In terms of student engagement and academic achievement, students in schools with strong school library programs with a teacher librarian tend to out-perform those without. Measurable impacts on students include school grades, test results and college-going rates.

A bit of school library history

According to the American Library Association, the first school librarian in the USA was probably Mary Kingsbury, hired in New York in 1900. The first standards for libraries in elementary schools were established in 1925. As standards evolved and developed, the most influential figure was Frances Henne, who led major revisions as schools added and expanded access to school libraries in the Civil Rights era.

In some schools, libraries are known as media centers

It was under Henne's leadership that the role of school libraries expanded from books to all media. In some schools, libraries have been reinvented as media centers.

Why are school libraries important?

At its heart, a school library is a place where students strengthen their literacy skills and learn how to think critically using a variety of resources. In a great school library (or media center), learning is engaging, creativity is encouraged, and students broaden their horizons.

In California, high quality school libraries teach students how to:

  • access information from a variety of sources
  • evaluate the credibility and accuracy of resources
  • make informed decisions
  • use those skills to become a lifelong learner.

All students need these skills to become well-informed, responsible citizens in our democracy.

Whether checking out a first book or discovering how to do online research for a history or science project, the library allows students to access diverse ideas.

Recently, school libraries have become the target of book ban efforts. Parents in California have very broad rights to information about schools, and many ways to express themselves if they object. Districts are taking different approaches to defend their students from censorship.

Lack of state funding reduced support for school libraries

California once provided millions of dollars each year to support school libraries. No more. Funding for each school library is now under the control of the local school district, not the state.

With the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013, the state largely discontinued the practice of earmarking state funds for specific categorical purposes, including school libraries. Instead, school districts have been given considerable power to allocate funds in whatever ways they see fit. A few mostly wealthy districts have consistently supported robust school library programs. Over time, however, total library funding has decreased and school districts have employed fewer school teacher librarians.

EdSource examined this trend in a series of reports. Among other effects, the decline in demand for teacher school librarians in California has created a feedback loop — with declining numbers of teacher school librarian jobs available, fewer people want to become teacher librarians.

In 2021, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) set out to document and quantify the nationwide decline in school library access in a project called LibSlide. Keith Curry Lance, one of the principal investigators for the LibSlide project, characterized the national pattern as a crisis of the middle. "The schools most likely to have librarians are the richest and the poorest. It's the ones in between that are the have-nots."

Using NCES data, LibSlide found that California public school students have the worst access to trained school librarians of any state in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which uses a somewhat broader definition of library employment, corroborates the NCES finding: California schools are very weakly supported with library services.

Standards for School Libraries

What mission should a school library serve? What services should it provide to teachers and students at each grade level? The answers to these questions have been revised every few decades. California's current Model School Library Standards, adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010, are well-structured and have remained useful even as technology has changed. (The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offers an alternative.)

Most California public schools don't have a librarian.

It takes time and resources to operate a school library. The California model standards recommend the minimum services required to effectively deliver on the state standards: at least the equivalent of one full-time certified librarian per 785 students, supported by at least one full-time classified paraprofessional assistant at least 34 hours per week.

Very few California schools provide students with this minimum level of library access. Quite the opposite: most California public schools don't have a certificated librarian at all.

Credentials for Teacher Librarians

In California, the professional requirements for teacher librarians are defined through the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC). Certified school librarians in California must hold a teaching credential as well a Teacher Librarian Services Credential. Only a few colleges in California offer a degree in library science.

What do Teacher Librarians do?

Teacher librarians are educated and certified to perform a variety of roles. Their jobs include teaching students directly in the library, consulting with teachers on resources that support subject matter, oversight of library collections, digital learning support, and ensuring the library is a welcoming place for all students.

Time for updated school library standards?

California’s model library standards are more than a decade old in a world where new information is generated constantly.

One critical step California can take to support student learning and to address the culture wars is to review and update these standards. The 2018 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) standards framework is a good place to start, as it emphasizes emerging ideas not fully covered in California’s existing standards. The table below summarizes some of the themes discussed in the AASL framework.

Elements of AASL model standards that might influence future California standards

Personalized learning

A school library is a place not just for on-site learning but also for virtual personalized learning.

Intellectual freedom

Intellectual freedom is every learner's right. Resources should be selected with this in mind and provide learners with access to information that represents diverse points of view.

Information technology

There should be equitable access to technology and a commitment to supporting diverse learners.

Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy

Students should learn the responsible use of technology as well as the skills to identify the credibility of digital news and information.

Online resources for school libraries

Another direction for school libraries is to establish deeper partnerships with public libraries, which are funded through different sources than school libraries.

California’s K-12 online Content Project from the California State Library supports school libraries with free access to standards-aligned educational content. This includes sources such as PBS, Britannica, ProQuest, TeachingBooks and Gale. Over 90% of California public schools are connected to the project.

School libraries, culture wars, and proposed legislation

Unlike other states that threaten school librarians with jail and where book banners want to close public libraries, California is taking a different tack. Legislative efforts are now underway to strengthen school libraries.

Proposals include helping local schools develop the knowledge and capacity to support quality school libraries using their LCFF money. Will school districts invest in teacher librarians if they know that teacher librarians increase academic success?

Bills of importance to school libraries in 2023 are summarized below.

Proposed legislation in 2023 related to school libraries and literacy.

Media Literacy: AB 873

Goal: Ensure that all K-12 students in California are prepared with media literacy skills necessary to safely, responsibly, and critically consume and use social media and other forms of media and information.

Proposes to consider incorporating the Model Library Standards and media literacy content into the English Language Arts/English language curriculum framework and incorporating media literacy content into the mathematics, science, and history-social science frameworks.

Statewide School Library Lead: AB 535

Goal: Better educate local education leaders about the value of the school library and its role in improving early literacy and overall academic achievement.

Proposes to create a Statewide School Library Lead to assist educators in developing school library services to accelerate literacy and learning, ultimately providing students with the proper tools needed to build their critical thinking capabilities.

Opposing view: "California school districts are seeing age-inappropriate, sexually explicit books in our school libraries. These are getting past our librarians. Let us parents/community members monitor our own libraries. We don't need a state lead!"

Instructional Materials - Diversity: AB 1078

Goal: Help school districts and school personnel manage conversations about race and gender, and how to review instructional materials to ensure that they represent diverse perspectives and are culturally relevant.

Requires the California Department of Education to issue guidance. Expands existing law, which requires governing boards, when adopting instructional materials for use in schools, to only include instructional materials that accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including the role and contributions of Latino Americans, LGBTQ+ Americans, and members of other religions and socioeconomic groups to the total development of California and the United States.

Opposing view: "This effectively creates a layer of ideological hijacking by state bureaucracy. To give the State Department of Education overarching power to approve, modify and veto curricular changes is both unprecedented and dangerous."

Local Public Libraries: SB 321

Goal: Establish the Local Public Library Partnership Program to ensure that all pupils have access to a local public library by 3rd grade.

Also requires the State Librarian to establish the Reading Initiative Program to develop a list of recommended books that supplement the state-recommended English Language Arts curriculum framework and develop a method for recognizing students who participate in the program.

Pupil instruction: AB 787

Goal: Identify best practices and recommendations for instruction in digital citizenship and media literacy.

Creates an advisory committee, including librarians, to develop best practices and recommendations for instruction in digital citizenship, internet safety, citizenship and media literacy.

Do school libraries need dedicated funds?

To address California's declining literacy proficiency, should the state commit more funding specifically for school libraries?

A big political question.

This would be a significant change in direction. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was put in place to eliminate this kind of state-controlled categorical funding. California does not designate state funding specifically for school libraries, or field trips, or athletics. School districts and unions must weigh many competing priorities to negotiate a budget that serves their community well, protecting funds for programs that lack organized local advocacy.

For many years, funding for arts education was only provided locally, without dedicated state support. Because many school districts were funding arts education inadequately, arts advocates took the issue to the ballot box as an initiative. In 2022, voters passed Proposition 28, which now delivers about a billion dollars per year specifically for arts education.

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