My friend Donalyn Miller sometimes shares posts on social media that she begins or tags with a warning to readers, alerting them to the fact that the post to follow contains an “unpopular opinion.” One of those posts continues to haunt me.
I didn’t read all 133 comments left on this post, but those I did read (rightfully) contained a chorus of “amen!” “preach!” and 🙌 emojis or animated gifs expressing solidarity. I mean, who could possibly disagree with a statement so boldly and profoundly weighted down by pure, slap you in the face, truth?! Certainly not me!
And yet, the data around school librarianship and the continued cuts to these positions nationwide, point to a reality in which Donalyn’s words do, in fact, constitute an unpopular opinion.
Here’s what we know: “Between the 1999–2000 and 2015–16 school years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the profession lost the equivalent of more than 10,000 full-time school librarian positions nationwide. That translates to a 19 percent drop in the workforce, from 53,659 to 43,367.” (Lance 2018) For as long as I have been part of the library community, school librarians have been a profession in peril. And when you drill down to the state and local levels, the data becomes even more bleak.
It’s widely known that California has the worst record when it comes to cutting school library positions. As of early 2019, only about 9% of California schools had a credentialed teacher librarian on campus - including part-time. (CDEO 2019) What’s more, the insidious, rarely spoken about, truth regarding the remaining positions, is that they are sometimes funded entirely by PTAs/PTOs, creating an inherently inequitable situation in which a child’s access to a degreed librarian is entirely dependent on the resources/wealth of the parents supporting that school. Of course, this practice isn’t exclusive to California. (I’m looking at you Seattle Public Schools).
But for this post, I want to focus my attention, just north of California, on Oregon. In Oregon, the number of licensed librarians in schools has dropped nearly 80%. Put another way, as of 2017, there were only 148.5 school library positions left to serve Oregon’s 1236 public schools. I haven’t seen the 2018 numbers yet, but given recent cuts in some of Oregon’s largest districts, I’m prepared for the story to get much, much worse. (SLO 2017)
Last year, I had the opportunity to share my passion about reading aloud to kids with a group of parents and community members at a public library in coastal, Oregon. As part of that presentation, I shared the data about school librarianship in their state. The single word that best describes the reaction of the people in that room, most of whom had children or grandchildren in the public school system, is shock. These parents, tax payers and stakeholders in Oregon’s public school system had no idea that most of the children in the state, including their own, did not have access to a degreed librarian. I’ll never forget when one of the members of the audience turned to the public library director hosting the event with the question, “but we have librarians here, right?” To which our host had to reply that no, the district did not have degreed librarians in schools serving children. From there, stories followed about principals introducing _____ as “the library teacher” during school tours, PTA meetings, open houses or even at school board functions. Upon closer examination, we found that _____ was typically the classified library aid, who’d been hired to circulate and shelve books, but who was now (perhaps unintentionally) being put in the position of having to masquerade as the degreed librarian. Or in at least one case, ______ was actually a parent volunteer.
Since then, when I visit districts where school library positions have been cut, I make it a point to ask questions about how these cuts have been shared with parents or the public. I’ve yet to visit a single district in which these decisions have been owned, in any way, by the officials making them.
Which brings me back to Donalyn’s post. She’s right. Claiming you care about literacy while not investing in libraries and librarians is hypocritical. But quietly cutting those positions, creating systems in which only wealthy kids get access to a degreed librarian, because they happen to go to a school with a flush PTA/O, introducing your classified library aid as the librarian or, in one situation I was told about, forcing that person to stand up in front of the school board as the principal accepts an award for their commitment to literacy, is more than just hypocrisy: it’s cowardice. It’s deception. And, frankly, it’s very, very telling, because if school leaders truly believed in these decisions, they wouldn’t put so much effort into hiding them.
So here’s MY unpopular opinion of the day: If you truly believe that having a degreed school librarian does not serve the learning and literacy needs of children in ways that deserve support, own that choice. If you’ve decided that the cost of a degreed librarian is better spent on something else, own that choice. If you think kids are better off without a degreed school librarian to help them grow reading lives and parse information in a world where figuring out fact from fiction is only growing more difficult, own that choice.
And then, show us the data that supports those decisions, because I’ve yet to see a study indicating that kids perform better (on any measure) without access to degreed librarians. On the contrary, there’s an overwhelming amount of data to prove just the opposite. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself: here, here, here, here, and here. Also here. Here too. Oh wait, here’s more. And here’s another one. Okay, I’ll stop now, but first, one more. You get the picture.
And look, I get it. Schools are woefully underfunded. District, state and building level leaders have to make impossible choices. Budgets continue to shrink almost as quickly as the profound needs of the kids we serve seem to grow. But none of that excuses the disproportionate and draconian cuts we’ve seen to school libraries in the face of record breaking spending in other areas - especially when we know that access to degreed librarians results in positive outcomes for kids.
In the end, the bottom line is simply this: I’m sick to death of school districts that claim to be all about “research based” practices while ignoring the research about school libraries and their impact on children. Districts that choose to prioritize other programs or positions in favor of a degreed school librarian have every right to do that. But if such choices are really in the best interest of children, those districts should not only own them, but they should also have no problem providing parents, community members and other stakeholders with the research and data that supports them. In the meantime, if you’re not sure if your child has access to a degreed librarian at their school, ask. And if the answer is no, I hope you’ll keep asking questions that, frankly, deserve answers.
PS: I know some wonderful classified library aids who do remarkable work for kids in districts where degreed librarians are like unicorns: magical creatures that people have heard of, but never actually seen. This post is not a reflection of their value. School libraries work best when staffed by both a degreed librarian and classified paraprofessional - both of whom perform necessary, but very different, roles in serving the needs of children.