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Op-ed: Improving school libraries gives Utah students a first-rate education

Each year the Utah Board of Education releases grades for elementary and high schools across the state based on factors such as career readiness and language arts, math and science proficiency.
Impact studies in 26 states show that schools with a collaboration structure between teachers and teacher librarians have higher reading scores, higher math scores, and greater student satisfaction in school.
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All Utah’s children deserve a first-rate education, not just those in the most affluent or urban communities. A first-rate education includes quality school library programs. Currently, the quality of school library programs varies wildly in the state, despite the fact that nationally the components of what constitutes a quality school library are well-known.

One component, comprehensive library media curriculum standards, is in place at the state level. It is to be taught to our K-12 students by the second component, a certified teacher librarian. These standards promote the teaching of essential 21st-century skills in information problem solving, media literacy and reading engagement.

A value-added effect of hiring teacher librarians is that they collaborate with teachers in other subject areas to raise scores school-wide. Impact studies in 26 states show that schools with such a collaboration structure in place have higher reading scores, higher math scores and greater student satisfaction in school.

The Jan. 20 article “Equalizing school funding tops lawmakers' to-do list” by Marjorie Cortez indicates that legislators are aware of funding inequities. Updating language in the code, however, is not sufficient to provide an equal opportunity for all students to benefit from the basic right to a quality school library. Implicit in that basic right is what expertise a certified teacher librarian can bring to a school.

Legislators in the past few years have emphasized adding to the weighted pupil unit. While this approach appears to equalize basic school needs, school districts in outlying or poorer districts that do not have local taxes sufficient to support all components of a basic program continue to slight school libraries. Professional library staffing is not something all districts can currently afford.

Why does the role of a teacher librarian and the effect of strong school library programs seem to be undervalued by so many legislators and administrators? Many leaders are simply unaware of the significant impact strong library programs can have on the total school program. One reason for this is that the importance of the school library is no longer included in courses in educational leadership.

A second major reason for poor understanding is that many of the administrators and legislators have not grown up attending a school, or have not had their own children attend a school, with a quality library program. The reason for this unfortunate lack is statistical. Utah has few teachers teaching these standards and directing library programs. Thirteen of Utah’s 41 school districts have no certified teacher librarians at all, not even at the district level, to guide the non-certified library aides who oversee their school libraries. Only three districts have teacher librarians in every school, elementary and secondary. The remaining districts have some teacher librarians, but these are usually only in secondary schools. In the past 30 years, the quality of school library programs in Utah has gradually diminished due to these factors.

Currently, there is a proposal to begin to remedy this dire situation before the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. It proposes to fund a three-year project/impact study that would place certified teacher librarians in 25 schools around the state while keeping the current library aide. The proposal includes an evaluation component to help demonstrate the impact of a teacher librarian on student learning.

Academic and corporate partners have been attracted to this proposal already and are willing to provide supplemental funding. Legislators and citizens alike should get onboard and provide the support this project deserves. Our students deserve to be taught by qualified teacher librarians the skills they need to be successful in an information-rich society. In all schools statewide, not just in the most progressive districts or affluent communities, our students deserve the benefits of academic environment and programs found in strong school library programs.