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California’s teacher-librarians under pressure just when they’re needed most

Since the onset of the recession, the mantra among school leaders statewide has been to keep cuts away from the classroom when possible.

But that hasn’t been true for what some educators consider the largest classroom on campus – the school library – even though demand has never been greater for guidance on how to safely and effectively navigate today’s overwhelming array of research options.

“It is indeed ironic that at this very point in history when students – all of us really – are being inundated by waves of information, school library services are being decimated,” said Connie Williams, a past president of the California School Library Association and a teacher-librarian for the Petaluma City School District.

“Librarians have traditionally been the organizers of information,” she said. “We help students understand resource authority, reliability and currency.Our role has never been more important and yet, never more threatened.”

Once a national model, California’s school library program has languished in recent years. Even before the recession, the Golden State ranked last in the U.S. for the ratio of credentialed teacher-librarians to students, calculated by the state in 2006 at one librarian to 5,124 students.

During the past four years, the picture has become even bleaker with the number of credentialed teacher-librarians statewide dropping from 1,261 in 2007-08 to 895 in 2010-11.

Meanwhile, the demand for services librarians provide have clearly only escalated with the expansion of the global economy and renewed push for high school graduates that are college and career-ready.

Teacher-librarians point to a role that has evolved well beyond managing book stacks and teaching the Dewey Decimal system. Instruction on how to safety use the internet has become a key focus in the elementary schools, while training in evaluation and filtering of internet sources has emerged a major educational goal on virtually all levels.

“Our job as teacher-librarians is to ensure that students are effective users of information and creative users of information,” Williams said. “Today’s students are not just users of information, they are creating presentations and projects and they need to know how to utilize and understand how media works.”

Indeed, model school library standards adopted only last year reflect just how much curriculum and instruction depend on the school’s research experts.

The standards require, for instance, that a California third grader should be able to conduct research by punching key words into a search engine.

By the sixth grade, students need to understand Boolean logic as well as other search limiters and expanders. And by high school, students should be able to search using “tags,” adjacency, proximity, wild card symbols and truncation; they should also have an appreciation for such terms as copyright, paraphrasing and intellectual freedom.

Glen Warren, a teacher-librarian from Orange Unified who helped write the new library standards, said making students “information literate” is a key objective in today’s schools.

“Information and digital literacy is more about process than it is about product,” he explained.” Virtually everything else in education is targeted towards product. What are you going to learn? What are the outcomes?”

But when it comes to information, he said, the focus is on process.

“How do we access information?” he said. “How do we evaluate it? How do we integrate it? Who are the originators of information – how do we use it ethically, legally and safely?”

In response to the new library standards and growing needs around information literacy, the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing is engaged in developing a new information specialist option to the Teacher Librarian ServicesCredential.

There is widespread recognition that teacher-librarians are perhaps the most qualified to teach not just the uses of new technology but also the process and ethics of information gathering as well as the role of critical thinking in research evaluation. But currently, a credentialed teacher-librarian is not authorized to serve as the teacher of record in a departmentalized classroom for instruction in information literacy.

The new information option is expected to receive final approval next spring with university and other preparation programs being offered perhaps a year from now.

The paradox, of course, is that all the new attention and responsibility comes as sweeping budget cuts push the teacher-librarian profession to the brink.

Many school districts point with pride that even during these difficult time, they’ve been able to keep their school libraries open – but Williams noted, many of those libraries are now staffed by classified personnel.

“While the place is important, it’s the people,” she said. “When a school is run with only one person, they have only half of the library team. They may have an excellent library that is open, but without the teacher librarian they don’t have the instructional component that their kids need. That’s the big divide.”

Ed’s Note: Cabinet Report is dedicated to covering K-12 education issues in California. To subscribe, visit http://www.siacabinetreport.com/home.aspx Selected stories have been shared with Capitol Weekly with permission from School Innovations & Advocacy, owner and publisher. Contact reporter Tom Chorneau:  tomc@sia-us.com


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