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NCLB Outrages

Librarians want in to No Child Left Behind law

Ohanian Comment: Librarians had better be careful of what they wish for. Yes, it would be ideal that by 2010 a certified librarian, or media specialist, would work in every school in the country. But how will those librarians feel when the U. S. Department of Education sends in the scripts for how they must do their jobs? There's no free lunch in NCLB. Money comes with scripts.

by Leah Fabel

WASHINGTON - The quiet, bespectacled stereotype of the school librarian hardly conjures a fighter’s image. As schools across the country struggle with dwindling budgets, however, school librarians have a job fight on their hands.

“For 20 years we have had standards and a curriculum and are considered to be teachers,” said Linda Williams, chairwoman of the American Library Association’s No Child Left Behind Task Force. “But still in the minds of some we just check out books and read to kids.”

At a time when many educators are trying to break free of No Child Left Behind, bemoaning high-stakes testing and arbitrary standards, school librarians are supporting language to write themselves into the landmark federal law as it faces renewal.

Recognition in the “highly qualified” category required of classroom teachers, the librarians say, would help provide funds for their training and recruiting. The revisions sought by the library association would also ensure that by 2010 a certified librarian, or media specialist, would work in every school—including the 40 percent nationwide currently without one.

The fact that principals are not required to employ a state-certified librarian makes library staff more likely than other positions to be cut, according to Williams. “The most prevalent problem is the money,” she said. “If they (principals) are going to get federal funds, they have to do this and they have to do that, and there’s not enough to go around.”

But if the federal education law required schools to employ media specialists, principals would not be able to cut the position.

The legislative holdup, though, has less to do with support for the librarians’ provision and more to do with the fumbling of the entire law’s reauthorization. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairmen of their respective education committees, expected to agree on a revised version of the 2002 law by the year’s end. Now, it looks as though little will happen until after the 2008 election.

Until the committees get back to work, Williams and her peers plan to use grassroots tactics—phone calls, letters and emails—to keep to reminding lawmakers of their importance.

They point to data correlating higher tests scores with certified librarians, including a 2006 publication by Scholastic entitled “School Libraries Work!” compiling nearly a decade of statewide studies supporting positive measurable impacts. A 2002 Florida study, for example, found high schools with libraries staffed at 60 or more hours per week scored 22.2 percent higher on tests than schools with fewer staffing hours.

Some education experts worry less about test scores, though, and more about media literacy as the Internet becomes larger and more ubiquitous.

Donald Leu, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, co-chairs a joint project with Clemson University on teaching Internet comprehension to adolescents. He points out only 25 percent of 7th graders in their South Carolina study used and read search engines. And of the study’s top 50 readers, none of them were able to judge website reliability.

“Reliability is a critical issue, and this is what library media specialists can help with,” Leu said. “You’ll find no state assessing this in their reading assessments. Kids are not learning to read search engines or web pages, and think critically about them.”

It’s a problem familiar to Juanita Tilgner, a retired librarian for Chicago Public Schools. Some high school students came to her, she said, unable even to find basic information like authors and copyright dates, either on physical books or online.

“By high school, students should be applying and refining the skills of access to information,” Tilgner said. “That’s what a trained librarian knows—the (library) curriculum, and how to support kids through it.”

Williams agrees. “Students need to be able to solve problems, and this is what we as librarians add to their instruction,” she said.

— Leah Fabel
Medill Reports


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