Op-Ed: Well-staffed school libraries can help students recover from their pandemic year

Beth Thomas | July 16, 2021 | Opinion, Education
School library media specialists reach every student, every year they’re in that building, fostering relationships that ignite and sustain a love of reading and learning
Beth Thomas

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been countless headlines about K-12 education and the learning deficits students will be facing as a result of remote and hybrid learning. Fortunately, the federal government has provided extraordinary funding to help school districts address those gaps. New Jersey would be wise to allocate some ofthis federal money to ensure that all New Jersey students have access to a robust school library program with a certified school library media specialist at the helm. From literacy, to social and emotional learning, to inquiry-based research experiences, school library media specialists support the education and development of the whole child. They have an in-depth understanding of the curricula of their school and know what resources can best support the various grades and subject areas they work with. Yet many districts have been eliminating this vital position. With this funding, there is now an opportunity to reverse this shortsighted trend.

Over 30 statewide studies conducted since 1992 have shown a direct correlation between strong school library programs and student achievement. Students in schools with certified school library media specialists score higher on standards-based reading and writing assessments, regardless of their demographics (Lance and Kachel). These studies have revealed that students in at-risk subgroups who have access to a strong school library program tend to benefit more than all students combined.

In May 2021, a study conducted by linguistics professor Dr. Stephen Krashen was published. He and his colleagues completed the third phase of a longitudinal study of significant factors in children’s levels of literacy. Using the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) test — a test administered to 10-year-olds in over 50 countries — they found that school libraries and their collections were the main contributing factor to higher scores, and made up for some of the negative effects of poverty. Furthermore, this study revealed that direct teaching and early literacy did not have a significant effect (Krashen et al).

Disturbing trend in New Jersey

Despite all of the evidence attesting to the importance of student access to strong school library programs, there has been a disturbing trend in New Jersey: districts cutting school library media specialists. School library media specialists are the highly qualified and Department of Education-certified educators with the expertise to teach both traditional and emerging literacies. They are trained in reader’s advisory and collection development. When provided with a robust budget, they are able to purchase professionally vetted resources that are current, diverse, support the curricular needs of the entire building and address a range of learning abilities. School library media specialists are among the few educators in a school who reach every student, every year the student is in that building. This consistency enables school library media specialists to foster relationships that ignite and sustain a love of reading. For many students, their first introduction to free-choice recreational reading happens in their school library.

In addition to fostering a passion for reading, school library media specialists are the most highly qualified educators to teach information literacy to students. They have graduate-level training in information science and the background to teach students how to become discerning users of the massive amount of information they encounter every day. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the consequences of misinformation and disinformation. Information literacy instruction should not be outsourced to already overburdened classroom teachers who lack the training of a certified school library media specialist.

The unprecedented American Rescue Plan funding New Jersey has received would be well spent on ensuring that all of New Jersey’s students have equitable access to a certified school library media specialist. A district would never think of investing in state-of-the-art science labs and then fail to staff them with certified science teachers or budget for the resources and equipment to enhance instruction for students. The school library is the largest classroom in the school and districts that are committed to creating a culture of reading and producing career-and-college-ready students need to allocate funding in order to staff it appropriately with a budget that provides for digital and print resources that support students’ learning, interests and personal growth. The return on investment of a school library cannot be overstated.

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