Behind the Data: Uncovering New Truths in School Librarian Employment
Keith Curry Lance of RSL Research Group has been studying school librarian employment for a long time, roughly 30 years since his first study came out. In that time, he has seen a lot of changes. But when he sat down a decade or so ago to sort out which states had gained librarians overall that year and which had lost, he was shocked to find no states in the “gained” column. That, he said, was a wake-up call.
Not long after, Lance met Debra Kachel, currently an affiliate faculty with Antioch University Seattle, via the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. Together, they applied for a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, as part of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.
Lance and Kachel’s three-year study, The School Librarian Investigation—Decline or Evolution? (SLIDE), explored the decision-making process around adding and eliminating school librarian positions and the possibility that school librarian roles are merely evolving to meet changing needs. The findings were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but also led to serious questions of access equity. EdSurge had the opportunity to discuss the findings with Lance and Kachel as they wrapped up their research.
EdSurge: What is the SLIDE study?
Lance: Deb and I decided to do a deep dive into the National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] data on school librarians and then go even deeper by interviewing the people who make those staffing decisions. We wanted to find out their influences as they make difficult decisions on whether to add, increase and/or decrease school librarian positions.
SLIDE has several components. The first is Perspectives on School Librarian Employment. It’s an analysis of a decade’s worth of data from NCES about the status of school librarianship and the number of school librarians nationwide. We also did a special report about the impact of COVID-19 on school libraries and employment. Of course, we had no idea the COVID-19 pandemic would happen when we proposed this project, but we thought we needed to include the information we found.
Finally, our report Voices of Decision Makers is based on interviews with 49 school leaders who made decisions about school librarian positions. Some added or restored positions, while some deleted or reduced staffing levels. We hoped to answer whether there is a full decline or an evolution of library positions. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn as much about the evolution due to the challenges of the pandemic.
Before we dig into the findings, can you share a bit about the significance of librarians?
Kachel: There is a large body of school librarian impact studies that correlate the presence of strong school library programs with better reading and writing test scores. And more recently, there are studies that show the positive impact of school library services on social-emotional learning. We feel pretty strongly that every school and every student should have a school library as an essential service.
Lance: I wrote an article several years back that compared the change over time in the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test scores to the change over time in the number of school librarians in each state. We found that states that had increased the number of librarians were doing better on the test scores than the states that had reduced the number of librarians.
In 2014, I was involved in a study in South Carolina, the only state where we could get test score results by individual standards, as opposed to overall scores. There were specific reading and writing standards related to information-seeking and research skills. We were able to peg correlations to topics that are much more specific to what librarians teach.
What types of things came out of the interview process?
Lance: We have a lot of empathy for these decision-makers; many told us touching stories about their choices. But even many administrators who said they had positive experiences with librarians felt that they had to cut them. On the flip side, at least half of those who told negative stories about librarians added them. And out of the 49 people interviewed, seven said, “I think librarians are obsolete!”
Kachel: Of course, the issue of budget came up in the conversation, even though we tried to get beyond that to other factors. But in our initial Perspectives report, two factors made us question if it was really all about budget.
One was the per pupil expenditures. The districts that spent the least per student actually had slightly better school librarian staffing than some of the schools with mid-range spending. You would think the schools that spend the least would have the smallest staffing, but they didn’t.
The other factor that really made us think was the staffing charts that showed the employment status of different educators and administrators over time. The number of administrators increased — district administrators, building administrators, instructional coordinators etc. The number of teachers was flatlined, and librarians took a nosedive. Clearly, a choice was made — we need more administrators than librarians.
One more disheartening thing about that is the two groups that spend the most face-to-face time with kids — teachers and librarians — were the lowest.
Something else in the Perspectives report stood out to me. Keith looked at a four or five-year span to see if districts that eliminated school librarians ever reinstated them. Only one in 10 ever reinstated a school librarian. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
What are the biggest outcomes from the SLIDE study?
Kachel: One of the major outcomes is the addition of the data tools on our website. We finally made the NCES data usable for the general public. Anyone can look at employment levels for a school district or state. They can also compare with other districts based on location or characteristics. There are downloadable spreadsheets and infographic PDFs that show all the data for a district.
Another outcome we didn’t plan is that the SLIDE project has been written about in several popular magazines. Getting this information out of the education and library world is very hard. Just making people aware is huge.
Lance: And we’re not just talking about the declining number of school librarians, which, frankly, is old news. What our analyses of this data show is much more alarming than the decline by itself — it’s the inequity of the decline. Not everyone is losing their school librarians, but the ones who are can least afford to lose them.
The majority of Hispanic school districts, for example, are twice as likely not to have school libraries as the majority of non-Hispanic districts. It’s quite a gross inequity. In rural schools, part of it is size and budget and part of it is pipeline issues; there aren’t enough school librarians to begin with. Many don’t want to go to an isolated rural area. In one case, a candidate turned down the job because there was literally nowhere to live. In some large urban areas, it is simply too difficult to find affordable housing on teacher salaries.
Kachel: Proportionately, our marginalized student groups seem to benefit even more from the presence of a strong school library program. And we know that the K-12 population is becoming more diverse. We looked at race, geographic location and other attributes, and we found that the students who seemed to benefit from and need school librarians the most were in the districts that were less likely to have them. It’s really an equity issue — a social justice issue. I think we really have to look at the equity. What are we doing in terms of educational opportunities for all kids? Some kids are simply more privileged than others, even in access to school librarians.
The SLIDE project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Grant Project RE-246368-OLS-20.