Cook: If reading is important, restore library staff

Steven Cook
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While every March is Reading Month, critical reading skills have taken on even greater importance recently given the third-grade reading legislation passed by the Michigan Legislature last year.

However, even as politicians have toughened academic standards with this new law — which can retain students in third grade who don’t pass standardized reading tests — school districts across the state have cut professional library staff to balance budgets under pressure from state funding cuts.

Also known as media specialists, Michigan librarians have seen their numbers slashed by 62 percent since 2003, compared to a nationwide drop of just 17 percent. Michigan now ranks 47th among the 50 states in ratio of students to media specialists.

“At the same time that all those staff were being cut, Michigan reading scores have plummeted,” said Kathy Lester, a full-time media specialist in Plymouth-Canton and advocacy chair of the Michigan Association for Media in Education.

In many school buildings across the state, libraries have been shuttered altogether — with those spaces reorganized for other uses. Elsewhere, libraries remain but uncertified staff have replaced media specialists to staff the circulation desk alone. Only 8 percent of public school buildings in Michigan have at least one full-time media specialist.

If our goal is to increase reading scores, cutting librarians and media specialists are steps in the wrong direction.

A 2016 Scholastic study noted the importance of school libraries, calling them “the largest classroom in the school,” and stating that, “Schools with a school library staffed by a full-time certified teaching school librarian have a high impact on increasing student achievement regardless of socioeconomic or education levels of the community.”

This is an important fact, given the recent announcement of school closures by the Michigan School Reform Office. All schools slated for closure are in high poverty, urban settings. One way to help counteract the learning deficit students in these communities come to school with is by providing them with access to a school library and trained staff — something most of are severely lacking.

A 2015 Library of Michigan research study showed that school library media programs have a statistically significant positive impact on reading achievement in grades 4, 7 and 11. Also in 2015, the Washington State School Library Impact study revealed that the presence of a certified teacher/librarian had a particularly high relationship to a school’s five year graduation rate.

The evidence is overwhelmingly supportive of school libraries with certified personnel and their relationship to academic achievement. But the benefits go beyond increasing scores on standardized tests.

Mike Ward, a media specialist in Clintondale, put it this way: “The better you can read, the easier things are going to be for you socially, academically, personally and professionally. Good readers find ways to be good citizens, good students, and successful people.”

With the proliferation of “fake news” stories, teaching critical reading skills have taken on added importance. As Thomas Jefferson said, “A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.”

Teaching students to not only read, but to detect fact from fiction will help them become part of that informed electorate Jefferson spoke of. School libraries and trained, certified staff are essential to achieving that goal.

The current trends in Michigan schools don’t make sense, according to Livonia Schools media specialist Brian Chinavare. “There’s so much focus on reading and literacy, and as a state we say we want to help all students become better readers — but at the same time we’re cutting libraries,” Chinavare said.

“What are we doing?”

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

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