As an ESL student and a child from an immigrant, economically disadvantaged family raised in blue-collar northern Ohio, I know first-hand the power a good book can have on a child who feels different and inferior from everyone around him. Aside from being a great escape vehicle, through character dialogue and imagery, books can introduce you to the colloquial language parents cannot teach – creating fewer awkward situations among friends and classmates. However, without proper guidance, children with backgrounds like mine struggle even further, as they often do not even know where to start reading. When I recall my childhood, I see now, whether at the schools I attended or in the community, my life would have taken a very different course if it were not for librarians.
Fast forward more than 30 years, and now, as a father, I see the world through my kids’ eyes. My kindergartner recently came home with an astronomy book written at an 8th grade reading level. After noticing his frustration at being unable to comprehend the content, I asked him how he got this book. He explained that the school librarian gave it to him when he told her he was interested in space. Having spent my entire career working with librarians, I knew this could not be the case. With a bit more inquiry, I learned that my son’s own school, which ranks highly in a number of studies, lacked a certified librarian.
My worlds collided. I sent a letter to the principal, espousing the same message I share every day: schools need certified librarians. In a home where a parent did not know any better, the experience would have been much different. The child would have proceeded with an inferiority complex and a fear of reading, instead of developing the love of reading I had as a child. One of the most important changes we can make as a nation to improve our schools is the support of bringing back certified librarians to each and every school. Improving the performance of striving readers will help create better citizens. After all, you need to learn to read to read to learn.
According to a recent study by the United States Department of Education, one in seven adults cannot read this sentence. If we don’t address literacy issues early, many children reach high school without basic literacy skills, which makes mastering concepts necessary for graduation and future success almost impossible. It is no coincidence, however, that students with access to strong library programs demonstrate stronger literacy proficiency. This is especially the case with striving readers. According to a 2013 study featured in School Library Journal, which was based on an assessment of student performance in Pennsylvania, “Consistently, reading and writing scores are better for students who have a full-time certified librarian than those who don’t. Students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, and have IEPs (i.e., students with disabilities) benefit proportionally more than students generally. These findings suggest that staffing libraries with certified librarians can help close achievement gaps.” Even with this proof, each year we continue to see districts and states, especially those with the worst reading scores, shed their librarians to save budget dollars. Even worse, some shed them because they do not understand their value.
We are always looking for the magic wand to “fix” our education system. We vacillate between edtech, charter schools, voucher programs, and whatever the idea of the day may be, while fully ignoring the fundamentals. I believe focusing on reading at an early age and ensuring students have the right support system at school and at home to foster a love of reading is truly the most effective way to get children to grow into responsible, literate adults who contribute to society. Especially with striving readers, this is done by making reading less intimidating. This is achieved through empowered, on-site librarians.