October 23, 2014

The DPLA and School Libraries: Partners Focused on Digital-Era Learners

In the most successful public and independent schools, librarians work as teachers in partnership with those based in the classroom. Together, these teachers prepare our kids for lifelong learning, from their school-age years and on into college and the workforce. Librarians and classroom teachers each bring unique and essential skill sets to the task of enabling students to construct knowledge. It is particularly troubling that many school libraries are under threat today, as education budgets tighten and library-based teachers are too often deemed inessential.

While the threat to school libraries is not new, it has intensified in recent years. Budget cuts have eliminated support for many school library programs and the librarians who work in them. The Obama Administration, strong on support for education as a general rule, has failed to champion school libraries and instead cut federal funding. The President’s 2013 budget proposal cut $28.6 million that was earmarked for literacy programs under the Fund for Improvement of Education.

These types of cuts to school libraries are short-sighted. Data suggest a direct correlation between schools with strong libraries and academic performance. Students in programs with more school librarians and extended library hours scored 8.4 percent to 21.8 percent higher on English tests and 11.7 percent to 16.7 percent higher on reading tests, compared to students in schools where libraries had fewer resources, according to a study by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

In an era of ubiquitous information, the need for school librarians is greater than ever. Critical thinking requires students to find information to fuel their inquiries. The same goes for the creative forms of learning that many of the best teachers seek to inspire in their students. There are far more sources of information for students to choose from, but students are rarely taught how to develop a good process for making wise decisions about information quality. Students need to learn digital literacy skills to be able to identify credible information in a more distributed, complicated world rich with data. Classroom teachers who were trained in an earlier era sometimes struggle with navigating the digital world of information and can lack the skills and confidence to teach kids well. The task of determining (and improving) information quality is core to the library profession. This educational challenge is one that school librarians are exceptionally well prepared to meet on behalf of our students. It is precisely the wrong moment to be cutting school librarians out of schools.

If we build it well, a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) can help school libraries meet the information needs of students even as local budgets shrink. The DPLA can provide important resources to the partnership between library-based and classroom-based teachers, especially during this period of rapid change in education, in libraries, in technology, and in the world of information generally.

Adopting the Common Core Standards

During last two decades, education leaders at the national and state levels have made significant changes in how students learn in our public schools. These reforms, including the adoption of a set of common core standards approved by 45 states, imply that teaching and learning will be geared toward a shared set of particular themes and skills in mathematics as well as English and language arts. The new standards have only increased the importance of librarian-classroom teacher partnerships in meeting the needs of our schoolchildren.

Schools will need to adapt the materials that they use as texts. While publishers are rushing to meet this demand for new teaching materials, not all schools can afford to pay the prices that Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and other education-oriented publishers are seeking. School librarians have the skills to identify and access materials to support student learning. Whether or not the school library is able to offer licensed proprietary databases, librarians can find appropriate instructional resources on the Internet in open textbook projects and other educational repositories.

School librarians can also serve as vitally important teachers to meet aspects of the requirements themselves. For instance, the English and language arts common core standards include an explicit provision with respect to media:

Media and Technology: Just as media and technology are integrated in school and life in the twenty-first century, skills related to media use (both critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the standards.

Classroom teachers are rarely well trained in new media and technology. While some are extremely savvy technology users, most were students before digital technologies became as central to the learning process as they are today. By contrast, because the disruptive transformation of libraries precipitated by the digital era has required school librarians to develop and maintain proficiencies in the use and application of a wide range of technologies, they are frequently the most technologically adept educators in the school.

Many school librarians face a financial barrier that limits their ability to take on these new and essential roles in partnership with classroom teachers, meeting requirements of the common core. While school librarians were underrepresented in the development of these standards, it is essential that they be centrally involved in their implementation at the school level.

The DPLA can help to bring down the financial barrier to full participation by librarians as they seek to provide the resources for kids to meet the new requirements of the common core standards. The DPLA can help librarians identify and provide access to materials that will help kids reach the standards, as implemented at the state level. For instance, the common core standards call for the types of reading for young people to increase from 50 percent non-fiction and 50 percent fiction in the fourth grade to 70 percent non-fiction and 30 percent fiction by the end of high school. This shift toward “challenging informational texts in a range of subjects” can be supported by shared resources, collected at a national level and then curated locally by librarians to meet the needs of specific communities.

Rewriting the Advanced Placement Exams

An analogous process of transformation is underway at the most advanced end of high school teaching.  Since 1955, students who plan to attend college have been offered the chance to take Advanced Placement courses and corresponding exams, administered by the College Board. These exams allow students to demonstrate their readiness to tackle the complex material ordinarily offered at competitive colleges.

These Advanced Placement exams are in the process of being rewritten to meet the changing demands of the new century. As the new material is built into school curricula, a national DPLA initiative to make appropriate supporting material available to all AP teachers and AP students could drive down the costs of the transition for schools and enable students to have easy, free access to relevant study materials.

Meeting the Needs of Students in Community Colleges

Community colleges serve nearly as many students as four-year, full-time colleges and universities, but without the strong library systems that their wealthier peer institutions can offer. Community colleges serve all Americans who apply, providing both academic and job-training programs. Thirteen million people attended community college in the US in 2009.

In addition to having far fewer resources than their better-off cousins at four-year colleges and universities, community college libraries are often plagued with budget limitations that impair their ability to build a collection over time. Staffing levels are likewise nowhere near as high as at other academic libraries.  The unmet opportunity to serve students as learners, to increase job-readiness for the highly skilled information sector jobs, and to grow the economy is substantial.

The Digital Public Library of America would remove the budgetary pressure of the need to collect a set of dedicated resources by establishing access to a set of common resources. A common technological infrastructure and a set of shared materials—for instance, historical materials to support common research projects, such as those focused on the Civil War, prohibition, or segregation—would mean that limited library funds at community colleges could be focused on hiring skilled librarians and providing them with ongoing professional development. The function of the community college librarian would be much like in other school libraries; to act as a teacher in helping students to construct knowledge through the use of the shared resources of the great libraries of the world.

The DPLA cannot solve all of the challenges facing our nation’s essential school libraries, from K-12 through community college. Support for building a DPLA should be seen as helpful to school librarians and their partners in the classroom. But support for the DPLA should not translate into support for budget cuts at any kind of library.

The importance of school libraries does not lie in their role as depositories of materials. Rather, their importance lies in the essential skill sets of the dedicated librarians who continually take on new roles in support of the education of our children. A well-developed DPLA will help school librarians by providing ready access to nationally-collected materials necessary to meet changing curricula. In partnership with classroom teachers, they will be able to identify and use the materials to support students in the construction of new knowledge. By working together at the national level, the DPLA can create shared platforms and materials in ways that will enable school librarians, and the students that they serve, to flourish in the digital era.

For more information on the DPLA, come to the Digital Public Library of America Update at ALA Midwinter.

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John Palfrey About John Palfrey

John Palfrey, a 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, is the president of DPLA’s board of directors and chair of its steering committee, as well as Head of School at Phillips Academy.

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