Pa. requires libraries in prisons. But not in schools. Why? | Opinion

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By Debra E. Kachel

All students are assessed on the same scale for standardized tests. If this were truly fair, shouldn’t they also have access to the same educational resources with which to learn? 

An education can only be so effective without quality instruction, teachers, specialists, librarians, and access to information, reading materials, and technology. And Pennsylvania has a serious issue with providing these to our students.

According to PASchoolsWork, an education advocacy coalition, Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the nation for its share of education funding. Moreover, the indefensible funding gap between wealthy and poor schools is among the most egregious nationally.

How have we gotten to this point of perpetuating what Joyce Valenza, professor of library and information science at Rutgers University, coined “institutionalized inequity,” where students in wealthier communities have so much more than their peers in impoverished communities?  

Nowhere is this more poignant than in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). To highlight this, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association’s (PSLA) and EveryLibrary organized a “Rally to Restore Philadelphia School Librarians.” Debbie Grill, who spoke at the rally, is a former SDP school librarian and a leader in the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. She noted in the 1990s, SDP had 175 school librarians; today they have just seven serving over 200,000 students

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Some students now graduate never having known a school librarian or a school library. Are these students prepared to navigate and interpret the barrage of information and advertising they are bombarded with daily to make educated career and life choices?

Frequently we hear that if students have the Internet, they don’t need librarians and libraries. The Internet can indiscriminately provide every reference to a word or phrase, but users must determine its validity. As Rep. Tom Murt recently stated at the Philadelphia rally, “just because students have calculators, we don’t get rid of math teachers.” 

A recent Stanford University study determined that high school students are unprepared to judge the credibility of information on the internet. More than 96 percent of 3,446 students from 14 different states believed claims found on a website without questioning or investigating the source. As one of the authors of the study stated, “Thriving democracies need citizens who can evaluate and access reliable information.”

Times have changed and so too has the role of the school librarian. They teach Internet tools, database searching, digital citizenship, and evaluation of information whether found in books or online. These aren’t just skills they need for school; these are life skills. Finding and evaluating medical info, housing and mortgage rates, credit card offers, and career and college choices. 

Information is power and knowing how to access, evaluate, and use it can determine one’s future successes. Students without school libraries and professional librarians are denied these opportunities to practice and master information use that they will need for school and beyond.

Years of research studies have documented the impact of school libraries and librarians on student achievement. Reading and writing test scores, as well as graduation rates, are higher in schools with certified school librarians, even after controlling for poverty. In fact, according to the Pennsylvania study of 2012, the most vulnerable students – those who are economically disadvantaged benefit proportionally more than students in general with certified librarians in their schools.

According to the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association’s (PSLA) 2018-19 staffing data, only 30 percent of PA school districts have librarians in each building. Twenty-three districts have no school librarians; and 120 districts have one librarian, some only part-time, for the entire district. 

And the trend is worsening. The 2018-19 school year represented the most severe losses of school librarians in our state over the past five years. 

But there is growing recognition that things must change.. Pennsylvania state legislators are attempting to pass HB 1355 and SB 752, each with bipartisan support, to ensure that every public school will have certified school librarians. After all, Pennsylvania mandates libraries and librarians in prisons. Aren’t our school students just as worthy? 

We must recognize that teaching critical evaluation skills as students find, read, view and hear information is an investment, not an expense. Having an educated citizenry makes our state and nation strong and competitive in today’s global economy. And the foundation for an educated citizenry is laid in a library.

Debra Kachel is the Co-Chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, and a former professor in Mansfield University’s Library & Information Technology Department. She currently teaches online for Antioch University Seattle, School of Education, Library Media Endorsement Program.