The Crisis in Canada's School Libraries

Haycock, Ken. The Crisis in Canada's School Libraries: the Case for Reform and Re-investment.
Toronto: Association of Canadian Publishers and Canada Heritage, 2003

"Research shows that schools with well-stocked libraries, managed by qualified teacher-librarians working with teaching staff, achieve standardized test scores that tend to be 15-20% higher than in schools without a library and library teaching program."

"The heart of a school." That's the phrase Roch Carrier, the renowned Canadian author and National Librarian, has used to describe school libraries, those special places where students can find the space they need for story-telling, study and even reflection. At its best, a school library can provide a child the opportunity to find that first "home run" novel or stumble across a science book teeming with the sorts of experiments that spark a budding imagination. By offering some key clues on researching a project or navigating the Internet, the teacher-librarian may be the educator who plays a crucial role in a teenager's eventual success at college or university. School libraries are so much more than rooms dedicated to storing books.

But mounting empirical and anecdotal evidence indicates that Canada's school libraries are not at their best; far from it. Across the country, teacher-librarians are losing their jobs or being re-assigned. Collections are becoming depleted due to budget cuts. Some principals believe in the age of the Internet and the classroom terminal, the school library is an artifact. In a growing number of Canadian schools, in fact, the libraries are shuttered all or part of the time, with well-meaning parents scrambling to fill the void. Through neglect, too many school libraries are now little more than storage rooms.

There's a sad irony about this state of affairs: the neglect of Canadian school libraries comes precisely at a time when many countries around the world are aggressively investing or re-investing in these very facilities. The World Bank, East Asia Bank, International Development Agency and European Union are all increasing support for school libraries and teacher-librarians to promote economic development, while philanthropic foundations are funding school libraries and teacher-librarians to further cultural development. Even the U.S. Congress weighed in last year with US $250 million of dedicated funding for school library materials to get its school libraries back on track. And why? Because policy-makers have been heeding a mounting body of research evidence showing a strong and compelling link between student achievement and the presence of well-stocked, properly-funded and professionally-managed school libraries.

Two leading researchers in the field offer this arresting conclusion: "In research done in nine states and over 3300 schools since 1999, the positive impact of the school library program is consistent. [They] make a difference in academic achievement. That is, if you were setting out a balanced meal for a learner, the school library media program would be part of the main course, not the butter on the bread." (Lance and Loertscher, 2003)

Recent state-wide studies of the relationship between school libraries, teacher-librarians and student achievement -- sponsored by groups as diverse as the State Library in Alaska, the Department of Education in Colorado, the school library media association in Oregon, a citizens' coalition in Pennsylvania, the Area Education Agencies in Iowa, the State Library of New Mexico, the Board of Regents of New York and the State Library and Archives in Texas -- have all come to the same finding: that in schools with well-stocked, well-equipped school libraries, managed by qualified and motivated professional teacher-librarians working with support staff, one can expect:
* capable and avid readers,
* learners who are information literate and,
* teachers who are partnering with the teacher-librarian to create high quality learning experiences
Standardized scores tend to be 10-20% higher than in schools without this investment (Lance & Loertscher, 2003).

But as this report will demonstrate, educators and researchers have been able to demonstrate these relationships for decades. Here are just some of their conclusions:

School Library Collections

* Larger collections of materials for students, including books, periodical subscriptions and electronic subscriptions, mean higher achievement;
* Increased access to networked computers providing access to Internet and library resources, including licensed databases, correlates with higher achievement levels;
* Higher spending on books and other materials - both for recreational reading and curriculum assignments correlates with increased reading scores;
* In schools where teacher-librarians exploit the resources of the local public library, student achievement tends to be higher than in those that don't.

School Library Staffing

* In all cases, library staffing levels correlate with test scores-students benefit from more access each week to a qualified teacher-librarian (TL)
* Improvements are even more dramatic when TLs play a leadership role by collaborating with classroom colleagues, teaching information literacy skills and participating in technology management within the school.

School Library Programs

* In schools where teacher-librarians have longer hours, there tends to be greater collaboration with teaching staff, more visits by students and thus higher reading achievement;
* Increased student visits to the library correlates with higher test scores;
* Student achievement is higher in schools where the library is open all day and the teacher-librarian is on duty full-time,
* Teacher-librarians and libraries play an important role in providing enrichment to students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds by providing access to books that may not otherwise be available to them;
* The support of superintendents, principals and teachers is essential to quality school library programs and student proficiency.

School Library Funding

* High achieving schools tend to assign a greater priority to school library funding from the many program choices available to them;
* In schools that offer improved funding for school library services, there tend to be greater gains in reading comprehension; in some studies boys improve most;
* The relationship between library resource levels and increased achievement is not explained away by other school variables (e.g., per student spending, teacher-pupil ratios) or community conditions (e.g., poverty, demographics).

In fact, no less than forty years of research - conducted in different locations, at different levels of schooling, in different socio-economic areas, sponsored by different agencies and conducted by different, credible researchers - provides an abundance of evidence about the positive impact of qualified teacher-librarians and school libraries on children and adolescents.

There are, remarkably, no comparable Canadian province-wide studies of school libraries and achievement in Canada. This knowledge gap may explain the accumulation of troubling Canadian trends - e.g. that only 10% of Ontario elementary schools have a full-time teacher-librarian, compared to 42% twenty-five years ago; that Alberta's roster of teacher librarians half-tome or more has dropped from 550 to 106 since 1978; or that in British Columbia, local school board funding levels now reveal dramatic inconsistencies in annual budgets for library resources, with the figures ranging from 80c to $35 per student. For many jurisdictions, moreover, parent fundraising has become the norm in a majority of schools, a trend that exacerbates the social disparity between have and have-not neighbourhoods.

This neglect comes with a worrisome cultural cost, as well. Studies show that qualified teacher-librarians have systematically sought out Canadian books and other media to ensure that the Canadian experience forms a significant part of each child's education. But as teacher-librarians decline in numbers, there's been a drop in the proportion of Canadian books, magazines, videos and electronic resources in school library collections. We are giving up our children's heritage without even realizing it.

It seems somehow strange to have to prove the self-evident benefits of a library, one of human civilization's greatest and more enduring institutions. But this is the daunting task confronting advocates for Canadian school libraries and teacher-librarianship as they face steady and troubling disinvestment. Their challenge grows even more perplexing when policy-makers grope around for novel tactics to solve literacy concerns - e.g., the deployment of school-based "literacy coordinators" - when there's a tried-and-tested solution close at hand. Nor is the empirical evidence all that surprising. No one should be shocked to learn that if children have access to a wide range of relevant books and library materials, they will be more likely to use them, both for learning and pleasure. No one should be astonished to discover that if students can take advantage of the guidance provided by a qualified teacher-librarian, they will be more likely to learn the sorts of critical thinking skills that are increasingly important in an information-saturated society. Lastly, no one should be taken aback to discover that when children are introduced to books and other learning materials that tell them about their own society and its values, they will begin to soak up what that culture has to offer. Yet if Canadian politicians demand hard evidence of the utility of school libraries and teacher-librarians, they can refer to the myriad studies cited in this report. Taken collectively, these studies demonstrate, with great clarity, that an investment in school libraries and teacher-librarians provides the sorts of dividends educators now seek from public school funding: better student achievement, improved literacy and reading skills, and enhanced readiness to succeed in a post-secondary environment. Canadian young people surely deserve to see the revival of a resource for which this country was internationally renowned for so many years. But beyond the moral argument, the research overwhelmingly supports the case for revitalizing Canada's school libraries. The question is, are the policy-makers prepared to listen and then act?



Reprinted with permission

BC Coalition for School Libraries
150-900 Howe Street, Vancouver,  BC  V6 Z 2M4



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