Is our children learning? - politics and school libraries

25 May 2011

Last week the House of Representatives' Inquiry into school libraries and teacher librarians in Ausralian schools tabled its report.  It makes interesting reading.  The report states what has been obvious to anyone who cared to look for some time: Australia's schools have poorly-funded libraries and a dearth of properly trained and supported librarians.  The Inquiry heard that 29% of schools in general, and 54% of government schools, had an annual budget of less than $5000 for curriculum support, reading material and electronic resources.  That's about enough to get you access to one or (if the school is small enough) two databases and  perhaps 50 or 60 hardback books.  In other words, it's woefully inadequate.  The Children's Book Council of Australia surveyed Australian school libraries last year and found that the average school library had a budget lower than 1975 levels.  Books haven't become any cheaper in the interim, and databases are expensive.

So how did we get ourselves into this situation?

The nub of the problem is identified in a rather general way in part 6 of the report:

6.6 It is indisputable that the value of teacher librarians’ work has been eroded over the years and undervalued by many in the community, be it by colleagues, principals, parents or those in the wider school community.
6.7 The profession has unfortunately been subject to the many competing priorities that school principals find themselves contending with in an environment in which education budgets are ever stretched

Cynics may note that the list of people undervaluing teacher-librarians fails to mention politicians and Education ministers.  The "environment in which education budgets are ever stretched" is casually referred to in the same way one might refer to the "environment in which summers are often hot and dry".  There's no denying the anthropomorphic nature of the underfunded education environment, however.

Australia is not alone.  A fortnight ago, news of the Kafkaesque  interrogation of teacher-librarians in Los Angeles surfaced.  These committed and talented educators have been forced to answer questions from lawyers demanding they justify their employment.  What sort of questions are they being asked?

"Do you take attendance?" the attorney insisted. "Do you issue grades?"

This is the sort of question asked by someone who either doesn't understand education, or doesn't want to.  This attorney was trying to establish that the librarian didn't teach anything to her students because she didn't give them a mark out of ten.  This sort of stupidity is what has led schools across the Anglosphere to concentrate on preparing their students for standardised tests, instead of educating them.  So the United States has SATS, Australia has NAPLAN and other countries have their own local variant.  Although standardised tests are often used as a rather blunt and inadequate instrument for measuring the competence of individual teachers, librarians generally have been spared because they don't always "take attendance" or "issue grades".  Interestingly, however, their influence can still be measured indirectly.  A Canadian study by Ken Haycock shows that schools with well stocked libraries with professionally qualified staff experience a 10-20% increase in standardised test scores, even after controlling for other factors such as socio-economic background of students, overall school funding etc.  So much for teacher-librarians not being real teachers.

But what about new technology?  Surely we don't need these old-fashioned libraries and expensive librarians now that kids have the internet?  The experience in Indiana says otherwise:

When a certified library media specialist serves the school on a full-time basis, the school library media center is more likely to have electronic connections to other school collections and the public library, secure more federal funding, provide more frequent instruction in the use of electronic resources, and maintain a website linking to current and relevant professional resource.

In other words, if you don't have a librarian your school is less likely to have access to useful online information sources and your students and staff will be less competent at finding information online.  The online information revolution actually means librarians are more necessary, not less.

Even when principals and school communities understand the need for libraries and librarians, however, they still have to operate in "an environment where education budgets are ever stretched".  Where is all the money going?  It's going to things that Education Ministers can cut a ribbon to open, and Prime Ministers can use to reward those who supported them at election time.

Even the Parliamentary Inquiry noted that Australian Schools recently received $14.1B in funding for the 'Building the Education Revolution" program.  This program wasn't just for 'school halls', as the Opposition likes to say.  It also built a lot of new library buildings.  Which is nice I suppose, but new buildings are no substitute for quality information sources and professionally trained staff.  You can buy a lot of databases and books for $14.1B.  You could also hire a lot of teacher-librarians.  Alas, the Australian Education Union doesn't control votes on the Labor Party Executive, and thus jobs in the construction industry were deemed more important than long-term educational outcomes.

One could forgive this misdirection of funds if it was the only time this sort of thing had happened, but there are plenty of other examples.  In this years' budget it was announced that the Howard-era policy of turning Australia's traditionally secular government schools into antipodean Christian madrasahs would receive an extra $222 million to assist religious extremists to proslytise.

School librarians are essential to a rounded education.  Critical thinking and information literacy are vital skills, particularly in an information-rich world like ours.  But the value of school libraries and librarians goes beyond database training and Google search tips.  Recent studies show that reading fiction improves both IQ and emotional intelligence.  Fiction readers also live longer.  Good books change lives.  I don't remember much about the library in my high school - I can't remember exactly where it was, or the librarian's name.  I do, however, remember that one day she urged me to read Orwell's 1984.  This one book led me to in turn to Huxley's Brave New World, Camus' The Outsider and a whole new way of seeing the world.  I thought about these books and the ideas contained in them both consciously and unconsciously.  Quite simply, that school librarian changed my life in a way that all of my English teachers and their class texts combined did not.

When you're reading a book because someone you respect and trust picked it out just for you, it's very different to reading something because you have to write an essay about it later in the year.  When you're not being tested or marked, you can actually learn more, or at least you learn different things - things you would never think about if you are simply looking for quotes to help "explain the main themes in...".  What school librarians do is teach children to broaden their horizons - to imagine differently.  This can not be measured in a standardised test.  Reading for pleasure can not be tested, nor can it be taught by rote.

When the attorney in Los Angeles was asking school librarians to quantify how they teach students, he may as well have asked how to teach someone to fall in love.  Modern politicians are not strong on subtleties.  Regrettably, I expect school libraries and librarians will continue to be underfunded and undervalued.  We will all be lesser for it.