This fall, school libraries across the country will be working to implement new standards for learning in the 21st century–but many will be doing so with fewer resources at their disposal.

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has released a set of “Standards for the 21st Century Learner.” The new standards update the organization’s 1998 Information Literacy Standards to reflect changes in the learning environment over the last decade.

The new standards come as budget cuts are threatening the job security of many library media specialists and are making it hard for school libraries to implement new programs.

“Because the No Child Left Behind Act does not address the direct correlation between school library media specialists and academic achievement, school library budgets that are not protected on the state level are being cut … to meet local budget constraints,” said AASL President Ann Martin.

That could pose a challenge as school media centers work to roll out the AASL’s new standards this school year.

The standards call for students to use an inquiry-based process, accept responsibility for what and how they are learning, and evaluate their learning.

AASL drafted the new standards with help from a task force made up of college educators, state education officials, and school and district media specialists.

“Our research concluded that the term ‘information skills’ was not going to work, because it was too narrowly focused: Our students must be competent in multiple literacies,” said Martin. “These learning standards are visionary and will encourage students’ intellectual and personal growth through four strands: skills, dispositions, responsibilities, and self-assessment.”

According to AASL, the key skills students need for understanding, learning, thinking about, and mastering subjects are developmental. They include learning an inquiry-based process for seeking knowledge, organizing knowledge so that it’s useful, evaluating resources for their validity and accuracy, and understanding material presented in a wide variety of multimedia formats.

The dispositions students need to succeed indicate the beliefs and attitudes that must guide their thinking and intellectual behavior. For example, students must display initiative in asking questions beyond the collection of superficial facts, and they must use self-direction and demonstrate adaptability.

Student responsibilities include respecting copyright, seeking different viewpoints, and contributing to an exchange of ideas.

Finally, self-assessment requires students to reflect on their own learning. Students must monitor their own information-seeking processes, use interaction with and feedback from teachers, and develop directions for future investigations.

Already, state education agencies in Colorado and Indiana, as well as individual school districts in Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia, have begun to adopt the new standards. AASL also says many database publishers are reworking their products to incorporate them.

The national school librarians association has three additional task forces working on documents and resources to accompany the new learning standards: one to develop a comprehensive, three- to five-year national implementation plan; one to develop indicators, benchmarks, examples, and assessments based on the standards; and a third to create new teaching guidelines to support them. All task forces are expected to complete their work by the end of the school year.

Cassandra Barnett, a National Board Certified Teacher and librarian at Fayetteville High School in Arkansas, said her school will “begin integrating the new standards into the lessons and units we teach in collaboration with classroom teachers.” She added: “These standards are way beyond what has gone before, and it is going to take a little time to get comfortable with them.”

Jobs in jeopardy

Adding to the challenge for many schools are budget cuts that are putting library media specialists’ jobs in jeopardy.

One high-profile example is in Mesa, Ariz., where the Mesa Public School District is on the verge of eliminating all of its library media specialist positions over the next three years.

The district’s plan is to move its librarians into the classroom to become teachers, replacing them with support staff. Of the district’s 78 school librarians, 47 retired or decided to return to classroom teaching this school year, reports the Arizona Republic.

Like many states, Arizona doesn’t have dedicated funds for school libraries, and it doesn’t require certified media specialists at any grade level. School libraries and library media specialists are controlled at the district level and not by the state education department.

Mesa officials say their plan comes in response to an estimated $20 million reduction in its 2008-09 operating budget–caused both by a decline in student enrollment and attempts to remedy the state’s $1.2 billion deficit.

According to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Susan DePrez, the libraries would be run by “resource center specialists”: full-time, 40-hour classified positions that must undergo specialized training but do not require a teaching certificate.

However, the district’s governing board says it’s open to other suggestions. As an alternative, some are proposing the creation of several regional librarian positions to oversee the new library aides who will replace Mesa’s exiting certified media specialists.

Another suggestion is to have certified librarians distributed over several schools. That’s a trend that is happening elsewhere in the country, including Nevada.

“In Nevada, school media specialist positions have been consolidated to cover more schools,” said Robbie Nickel, school media specialist at Sage Elementary School in Spring Creek, Nev. “In some school districts, aides or staff without library certification cover elementary schools. In the Elko Country School District this year, one elementary school library position was not filled, and school media specialists from two nearby schools are reducing time at their own schools to provide service to the school without service.”

“This year, [owing] to budget restraints, we have lost our second media specialist position in our high schools, regardless of the number of students enrolled,” said Louis Greco, director of media services for St. Johns County Schools in St. Augustine, Fla.

Though Arkansas mandates that every school must employ a state-certified school library media specialist, there are no requirements for library aides or clerical help, and there is no state-mandated minimum budget, said Fayetteville’s Barnett.

“What I have seen in my state is the cutting of aide time or eliminating an aide position altogether,” she said. “A few years ago, we went from two full-time aides to one aide. We had about 1,600 students then; we now have about 1,900 students. Library budgets in the state have been cut, frozen, or asked to absorb costs that used to be paid from other budgets.”

Barnett added: “My district has also eliminated its district library supervisor position.  This has profoundly affected our library program. Building librarians have had to absorb district duties, which cut into the services provided at the building level. There is no one at the district level to help district administrators to see the big picture in terms of the library program. When we had a book challenge issue a few years ago, there was no one at the district level who knew the policy well enough to keep some pretty big mistakes from getting made.”

Martin, the AASL president, said cuts are happening sporadically for now–but as the economy becomes more of an issue, the threat of cuts to school library services will become even more widespread.

“The elimination of teacher-libraries seems to be a trend in states where school budget cuts force drastic measures, such as staff reduction and the elimination of critical programming,” she said.

Especially disconcerting

The loss of media specialists is especially disconcerting in light of a recent study–the Public Library Association’s “2007 Public Library Data Service Statistical Report”–which found that nearly 70 percent of students ages eight to 18 use their school library more than once a month, and 60 percent also sought out materials for personal use from their school library.

“Students and their families have [fewer] economic resources to purchase what they need for school projects,” said Greco. “The school library allows students equal access, regardless of their personal economic situation, to complete academic tasks.”

Nickel agreed: “Students need to learn how to use and evaluate the internet as a resource. For some students, school is the only place they have internet access [combined] with [a] structure for learning [its] appropriate use. The media center becomes a level playing field for access and use of this resource.”

AASL believes eliminating the positions of media specialists who are certified and trained in 21st-century literacy and technology skills will cost school districts more in terms of academic achievement over time.

“Cutting back on the district’s library media program at a time when students need more help with literacy, not less, and more instruction in dealing with the effective use of information, could cause a serious effect on students’ achievement,” said the organization.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s “America’s Public School Libraries: 1953-2000,” public schools with library media programs decreased from 96 percent in 1993-94 to 92 percent in 1999-2000, and library expenditures per pupil, excluding salaries, increased only slightly during the same period, from $15.60 to $15.70–not enough to help implement 21st-century learning strategies.

AASL recently started a longitudinal study called “School Libraries Count,” and library media expenditures are one area the group is tracking. AASL hopes the study will produce valuable information to help support school library media programs.

“Information fluency is increasingly important; if you can’t access and assess information, you lose,” said Laura Pearle, an independent school librarian from the Hackley School in New York. “Economic downturns don’t last, and revamping a program will take more money than it would to keep it going.”


American Association of School Librarians

AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner

Public Library Association

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Learning for High School Success resource center. Preventing high school dropouts has become a key focus of education stakeholders and government officials across the country, as the skills taught in high school are imperative to students’ success. But with online credit recovery programs and virtual learning becoming more accessible to more students, many are able to regain momentum and graduate with high school diplomas. Go to: Online Learning for High School Success

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