Culture, economics, educational, homeschool, tales from the local library

The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing School Library

A quiet trend is emerging in many schools as our culture has shifted almost completely towards technology as the main source of information: the demise of the school library.

Our youngest children have never attended a traditional school. They have been exclusively home educated, with additional supplemental instructions provided through enrollment in educational programs and cooperatives which we pay tuition and fees for them to attend.

Our oldest children, however, attended traditional school from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and the school library as well as its librarian, was a large part of the life of their schools. Because we have been disconnected from the happenings at our local schools for most of the past 7 years, I was quite surprised to read this by Krysta at Pages Unbound:

Years ago, my school library closed. The administration declared that no one was using the library and that it had become “obsolete” with the age of the Internet. The room that was once a library is now a computer lab. And the administration probably still feels proud that they are being “innovative” and keeping up with modern technology. The irony, however, is that the school library was only ever as obsolete as the administration and faculty made it. And, if they had wanted to, they could have saved the school library within a few months.

My school library closed because no students ever used it. No students used the library because it was primarily open during school hours and briefly after–and no teacher ever seemed to think about bringing their classes to the library. Students were not allowed out of class for essentially any reason (except, of course, sports), so could not go to the library by themselves. In short, the school itself prevented students from using the library because they blocked access to it.

I was completely incredulous of this as a trend. I usually am when I read about the disdain supposedly smart people have for libraries. Leaving aside for the moment fiscal issues or drag queen story times, a library is useful for all kinds of things and to all kinds of people no matter what our particular ideological bent might be. Our local library branches nearly always have brisk traffic and our family’s use of its services is so frequent, the fiscal argument is lost on me anyway. My tax dollars may be wasted with regard to the public school system, but I more than make up for it with our use of the local library.

After reading the Pages Unbound post, my incredulity remained, so I decided to do a bit of clicking to find out if it was really true: Are school libraries becoming obsolete even as school districts clamor for greater and greater tax increases and gambling legislations to pump more money into education? Have we really decided, as we simultaneously learn how damaging excessive screen time is at young ages, that access to books is unimportant and the printed word is obsolete?

Unfortunately, it seems Krysta was not being Chicken Little here. (I never really thought she was!) This is a real and troubling trend. One of the most enlightening articles I found was a piece at Architecture and Education’s Disappearing School Libraries-Why?

An interesting question posed by an Australian researcher, Terry Byers, on Twitter got me thinking. He asked, “Why do architects and school leaders see them [libraries] as redundant spaces?”

Is part of the redundant libraries issue a bigger problem with teaching spaces winning ground (quite literally) from more social, perhaps less official learning spaces then?

My guess is yes. In this logic, it’s not just that space is redundant but that if that space can’t be directly and demonstrably linked to pre-established assessment-oriented learning activities it is now seen as an opportunity cost – get rid of it, use the space elsewhere.

The moral injunction that schools do all they can to improve learning when learning is tied to increasingly narrow definitional pressures and measures, and teachers’ and principals’ own careers being pegged to the visibility of student progression puts pressure on how physical space is seen. It changes what kinds of space are efficient in this logic. As Lyotard put it, “be operational (that is, commensurable) or disappear” (1984:xxiv also online here). If your library or staff space cannot be shown to contribute to the performance of the system and so its efficiency or value (within the terms of the system) remains an unknown, it loses out. This is the “terror” of which Lyotard writes. To be unvalued is to be anyway devalued. To be value-able means changing what you are.

Architecture and Education is a UK website. Interestingly enough, most of the articles I found initially were from English publications. Apparently, we’re not the only ones closing school libraries. However, this author’s point about pre-established assessment oriented activities rings true here. If there isn’t a clear connection between the use and presence of a library and the scores produced on the standardized tests, then the library occupies a space that would be much more efficient if put to use in a way that shores up the bottom line. Everything today, including education, is all about the bottom line. All the talk about doing things “for the children” is just that; cheap talk.

This cognitive dissonance is deafening to anyone who bothers to hear it.  The people who are most likely to clamor for more money to boost student achievement are also among the people to pretend to champion the plight of the poor and downtrodden: the families of children who are least able to afford to buy their children books. I’ll go back and pick up those ideological concerns that I initially laid aside because there actually is a direct link between academic achievement and library access.

The data shows that children with access to school libraries and librarians do better in school, so one has to wonder how the educational powers that be (who also primarily inhabit the political class which pretends to defend the poor) arbitrarily destroy school libraries rather than trying to revitalize them for the sake of the students. The data as present by Kappanonline:

Data from more than 34 statewide studies suggest that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs. Further, when administrators, teachers, and librarians themselves rated the importance and frequency of various library practices associated with student learning, their ratings correlated with student test scores, further substantiating claims of libraries’ benefits. In addition, newer studies, conducted over the last several years, show that strong school libraries are also linked to other important indicators of student success, including graduation rates and mastery of academic standards.

Skeptics might assume that these benefits are associated mainly with wealthier schools, where well-resourced libraries serve affluent students. However, researchers have been careful to control for school and community socioeconomic factors, and they have found that these correlations cannot be explained away by student demographics, school funding levels, teacher-pupil ratios, or teacher qualifications. In fact, they have often found that the benefits associated with good library programs are strongest for the most vulnerable and at-risk learners, including students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.

Funny that I, with my conservative values and money to buy my homeschooled kids a book whenever I feel like it, care more about student access to libraries than the people whose job it is to serve those students’ interests.

American history, Digital reading, economics, nonfiction, politics

Discrimination and Disparities

discrimination and disparities

Discrimination and Disparities, by Dr. Thomas Sowell, Kindle edition. Originally published March, 2018. 143 print pages.

Thomas Sowell, among the most brilliant economist and political commentators of our time, was the first voice that resonated with me as I began to formulate my own thoughts about how the world works. His work helped me to intelligently process which policy ideas were worthwhile  and which are actually destructive to society. For the first few years of my adult life, I had accepted a lot of things at face value which turned out, under closer scrutiny in the light of facts, to be fallacious at best, but mostly just ridiculous and dangerous.

This book is particularly exciting for me to share because it is exactly the book I would recommend to anyone who is unfamiliar with Dr. Sowell’s work. Having read many of his books, I can attest that his work is not light reading. You must approach it attentively and prepared to be confronted with boatloads of facts. Dr. Sowell bombards his readers with so much documented research that thinking is required to read his books.

The beauty of this book is that it is perfect for the stunted attention spans of 2019. In fact, if I had to describe it in a concise manner, I would characterize it as a comprehensive Cliff Notes version of Dr. Sowell’s accumulated research on the whys and wherefores of group and individual outcomes. If I had to pick one quote from this book that encapsulates its spirit, it would be this one from page 17:

What can we conclude from all these examples of highly skewed distributions of outcomes around the world? Neither in nature nor among human beings are either equal or randomly distributed outcomes automatic. On the contrary, grossly unequal distributions of outcomes are common, both in nature and among people, in circumstances where neither genes nor discrimination are involved.

What seems a tenable conclusion is that, as economic historian David S. Landes put it, “The world has never been a level playing field.” The idea that it would be a level playing field, if it were not for either genes or discrimination, is a preconception in defiance of both logic and facts.

You really need to read the entire book to fully appreciate the wealth of insight in that  quote. This is especially true in our world where people are so highly invested in their personal narratives of why the world is the way it is. Whether it is those who insist we can legislate our way to equal distribution of outcomes which are mostly a result of overt, hostile discrimination, or those whose haughty belief in their own superiority cause them to genuinely believe that entire races of people are inferior to other entire races of people, Sowell puts both assertions on the chopping block. Using solid facts and evidence as the ax, both erroneous assumptions lose their heads.

The cool thing about this book, besides its detached and factual approach to a sensitive subject, is that the notes section is extensive. In fact, a full 1/4 of the book is encompassed with notes and research references. In other words, Dr. Sowell doesn’t simply offer up  his clear belief that most inequality of outcomes can be easily directed to causes other than racial, sexual, or class discrimination. He backs it up with facts, then backs up those facts with even more facts.

If you’ve never read Sowell, or tried and gave up under the weight of his intellectual style and overwhelming factual record, this short book is an excellent read to get the gist of why this man is so well respected as a giant in the intersection of economics and political policy. Or why he is so hated by those who prefer that we just make decisions based on whatever makes us feel as if we’re good people.

5 out of 5 stars