Sent to the Houston Chronicle, October 9
Lisa Falkenberg ("Cutting libraries shows warped priorities," October 9) is right: Spending money on increased testing while cutting libraries and librarians is like investing in precise scales to weigh the animal, but neglecting to feed it.
Decades of research show that the most important factor in developing literacy is self-selected reading, or reading because you want to. For children of poverty, the library is often the only place they have access to books.
We hear pious pronouncements from politicians about the importance of reading, while their actions prevent it from happening.
University of Southern California
Cutting librarians shows warped priorities
By Lisa Falkenberg
HOUSTON CHRONICLE, OCTOBER 9, 2013
Schools without librarians. Schools without any library at all. What are we doing to our schools?
Maybe I'm having an existential moment. Maybe I've spent too much time with Diane Ravitch's new book, "Reign of Error," which explores the disastrous implications of the "reform" movement pushing testing, privatization and punitive teacher "accountability."
But Ericka Mellon's front page story Tuesday on disappearing librarians and libraries struck a chord with me - an eerie, piercing, minor chord that is still ringing in my ears.
And although the loss of certified librarians is tragic, it was the mention of library-less schools that hit hardest. There are 35 schools within the Houston Independent School District that haven't reported to district officials the name of a staff member responsible for checking out library books to students, according to spokesman Jason Spencer.
That likely means there's no functioning library at those campuses, although Spencer said a clerk or volunteer could be keeping things going.
As a kid who grew up with few books in the home, the school library was a wonderland, a refuge, an All You Can Eat buffet for the mind. It was inspiration and independence; I could read what I wanted, not what I was assigned.
The library, and the librarians, taught me how to search and research, how to analyze, how to find things I didn't know I was looking for. That giant dictionary on the swivel stand was as addictive as any video game. Obsolete today, maybe. But its lessons are still with me, even when I'm typing my inquiries into MerriamWebster.com.
Life rafts for the poor
For poor children, many of whom live in homes with no books and neighborhoods with few public libraries and bookstores, libraries are life rafts. Studies have shown that less access to books means lower reading achievement, and more access can actually mitigate some of the effects of poverty.
Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California who writes about linguistics and language acquisition, has argued that books are as essential as a healthy lunch and health care. Although, the latter is at risk, too, not only for lack of insurance in our state. Principals are cutting school nurses as well.
Access to health care and books are two things Ravitch puts forth in her book as "solutions" to better educating poor children. "We know what works," she writes. All we have to do is look at the things advantaged kids have in their homes and schools - exposure to arts, sports, dance - and try to provide them as best we can in poor schools.
Ravitch's "solutions" can seem downright elementary: "Every school should have a library with librarians and media specialists," she writes.
Well, of course. But she knew something I didn't when I read those words. Librarians and libraries aren't a given anymore. They're not a priority. They're a luxury.
The quote in Mellon's story from Michelle Schmidt, a leader of the Pershing Middle School parent group, said it all: "In an ideal situation, all public schools would have librarians and art programs and P.E. every day, but no public school has it all," she said.
Books, art, exercise
In my day, which wasn't too long ago, books and art and exercise were the basics, what a kid needed to survive, to stay healthy and inspired and interested. They still are.
But some educators in our society, many of whom wear the "Reformer" cape, have other priorities. They have swallowed whole the mantra that our schools are in crisis, our children are in danger and our national security is at risk as a result.
As Ravitch suggests, they have come up with "solutions" that seek to undermine traditional public education, the foundation of our democracy, and replace it with a system of "choice," code for privatization, and "accountability," code for punishing and firing teachers whose drill-and-kill skills are wanting in this chilling dominion of the Almighty Test.
Here at home, HISD just received the coveted Broad Prize. The $550,000 in college scholarships that comes with the award is a wonderful thing. The reform-minded zeal behind the award is something else.
To some extent, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier is just following state laws that require certain amounts of testing, but he has chosen to continue tying teacher bonuses to student performance on standardized tests in a program known as "ASPIRE." So-called "merit pay" has been around for nearly a century, but there's no compelling evidence it works.
Yet, it is a priority for taxpayer dollars. And, thanks to the Texas Legislature, so is testing.
Merit pay = 20 Marians
Since 2007, HISD has paid out about $200 million on merit pay. Earlier this year, it paid $17.6 million in ASPIRE awards, about $12.3 million from local general funds and the rest from grants. If you're curious, those general funds are enough to pay 200 librarians.
Then there's the money for testing. HISD last year approved about $3.3 million for testing tools known as "formative assessments," which track what students are learning. In an alternative, test-free universe, that amount is enough to pay for about 55 librarians.
Spencer, the HISD spokesman, stressed that the decision to cut libraries lies with principals, who are ultimately responsible for student academic achievement: "In HISD, we've decided for better or worse principals have this discretion," Spencer said. "If the board decided they wanted to make that nonnegotiable they could."
And what are the board's priorities? We'll get some idea of that on Thursday, when members consider a four-cent property tax rate increase. It would be the first since 2001. And HISD would keep its proud distinction of having the lowest tax rate among 24 of Harris County's school districts.
But then, if it passes, there's no guarantee any of it would go to libraries. Priorities are elsewhere: tests, data, teacher assessments. Everything else gets stuck on a shelf.