The federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law eight years ago this month. One of its avowed purposes was to assure that, by the end of the 2013-14 school year, all children would be proficient in reading and math. It is now 2010, and a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, released in November, has found no evidence of an increase in reading achievement in either 4th or 8th grade since 2002. Expensive reading initiatives such as the Reading First and Striving Readers programs have shown gains only in the low single digits. What are we missing?
In a quick survey of the dizzying array of reading initiatives launched at both the federal and state levels since 2002, the words “increase access to a choice of books” are all but impossible to find. Meanwhile, as states grapple with budget shortfalls, schools around the country are quick to cut library funding to make ends meet. Not only is nothing being done to increase access to books, nothing is being done to decrease the loss of access to books.
School libraries are slowly but steadily being replaced by an onslaught of packaged reading programs designed to teach “virtual reading,” in which students can learn everything about reading without actually doing it. As a result, progress toward universal reading proficiency has to be looked for with a magnifying glass.
Study after study has shown that reading achievement in a school is directly related to the quality of its library. Research also has shown that improvements in school libraries result in improvements in test scores, the greatest being among disadvantaged readers. With a good school library, all kids have easy access to a great selection of books. With a good selection of books to choose from, they read more. And those who read more books get more practice and become better readers. Their reading achievement scores rise.
To reach the goal of 100 percent reading proficiency, we need to turn away from the doctrine of NCLB, and toward a formulation that could be called NCWB—No Child Without a Book.
School libraries are slowly being replaced by an onslaught of packaged reading programs designed to teach 'virtual reading,' in which students can learn everything about reading without actually doing it."
To reach universal reading proficiency, all schools must provide students with a high-quality library. It should be at the center of every school, the first room planned for in a new building—and at the bottom of every list of budget cuts. School libraries should be open when kids can use them, especially in the summer. They should be comfortable, quiet, and inviting. And they should be well stocked at all times. Their objective should be putting books into the hands of young people, not just on the shelves.
Kids should be allowed to take books home. They should be able to keep them as long as they like. Tracking systems should be designed only to show the whereabouts of books, not to fine kids. Good treatment of the books should be rewarded—it means more people get to read them. But damaged or lost books should not be a cause for punishment. A school library’s success should be counted in the number of books checked out per student per week, not by how many sit pristinely on the shelves.
These kinds of libraries do more than provide kids with easy access to the books they love to read. They say to kids: We value reading, and it is our gift to you. Reading books is a part of school that kids can truly enjoy. When we show them we value it, we give them a way of learning they can throw themselves into.
All of us must work to prevent the disappearance of the school library.
The federal government should strengthen school libraries, first by setting standards that include them. To qualify for federal funding, schools should be required to maintain a specified percentage of their annual budget in their library fund. Federal officials also should include a library factor in tabulating the annual score known as AYP, for adequate yearly progress. Each year, under the No Child Left Behind law, schools earn this designation based on a complicated formula that includes scores on student assessments and graduation rates, among other factors. Criteria for a library factor would include the number of available books per student, the number checked out annually per student, the square feet of library space per student, and the number of hours the library is open, both when school is in session and when it is not. And finally, the federal government should encourage donations from the private sector by allowing larger tax deductions for contributions to school libraries.
School accreditation agencies also can strengthen school libraries. Currently, these agencies evaluate services and operations of schools for a fee, in exchange for a seal of approval. Though the accreditors are not government-affiliated, most public schools acquire such accreditation to assure the public of their educational quality. Representatives of such agencies require a lot of data from applicants and spend days at a time observing school operations. Agencies that do not make high-quality libraries a necessary part of their accreditation decisions should be legally required to disclose that on their seals. Schools with accreditation from agencies with that disclosure would not have the quality expected.
Parents, too, can strengthen school libraries by showing administrators that they care about such resources. When visiting a potential new school for their children, parents should ask first to see the library. If a school has a good one, it is more likely to be a place that values literacy and puts kids first.
Libraries are not a product packaged by giant corporations. They are rich resources for children created by schools and communities, and by the countless authors of books. The ones who prosper from them are the readers. We cannot let school libraries go extinct.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Proficient Readers Need Good School Libraries