Librarians left out of literacy initiative

An Indiana librarian says certified librarians should be part of the discussion on literacy. (Getty Images)

As an educator, I was initially thrilled by the announcement that the state of Indiana and the Lilly Foundation are partnering to invest millions toward improving early literacy rates in our state. It is alarming to see a nearly 10% decrease in the number of third graders who have met reading benchmarks over the past ten years.

As I read on, however, I grew disappointed.

I appreciate that funds are being directed toward teacher training and the creation of a Department of Education (DOE) Literacy Center, but there is one research-based method to improve student achievement and bolster early literacy that is notably absent from this $111 million dollar plan: bring back the certified school librarians.

Over the past few decades, education researchers like Keith Curry Lance have found time and again that a school district’s employment of certified school librarians typically results in higher reading scores for their students– and the loss of school librarians often has a negative impact on test scores.

Certified school librarians hold teaching licenses and have been through the same teacher training as classroom teachers. We work directly with students, which allows us to meet our students where they are and guide them toward professionally selected reading materials that educate, entertain, and encourage continued reading and growth. We collaborate with classroom teachers on literacy and research instruction, reducing some of the strain that is driving many teachers to burnout.

We create lessons according to a national framework of standards, released by the American Association of School Librarians in 2018, which encompass not only reading and information literacy, but also collaboration, communication, and curiosity– some of the skills most commonly cited as the top skills employers are seeking. And we teach with the goal of growing life-long readers, aiming well beyond the reading benchmarks measured by standardized tests.

And yet certified school librarians have been seen as expendable: according to Lance’s SLIDE Project, Indiana saw a 35.5% loss in school librarian employment between 2010 and 2019. I am lucky enough to work for one of the few school districts left in the state that still values certified school librarians enough to ensure that we have one in every building.

Many districts have replaced school librarians with paraprofessionals or volunteers, especially in elementary schools, relying on a single certified librarian to coordinate library lessons and programs for an entire district. This is a curious practice because it eliminates our ability to work directly with students and instead places the burden of delivering instruction on people who are not trained (nor adequately compensated) to teach.

Many of the remaining school librarians have taken on the additional task of supporting our schools’ one-to-one technology initiatives, leaving less time for one-on-one interactions with our students. Our Indiana library education content standards, last updated in 2010, were left out of the DOE’s standards update schedule and have since disappeared from their website altogether.

We have been left out of local and state conversations about literacy instruction, our expertise forgotten or ignored. But the research shows that Indiana needs us– our students need us. And I hope that Gov. Eric Holcomb and Secretary of Education Katie Jenner realize this before it is too late.

Emily Wilt

Emily Wilt is a librarian at Chesterton High School and current chair of the Association of Indiana School Library Educators.