Low literacy rates highlight need for school librarians
(Mich.) Education advocates are trying to breathe new life into a trio of bills introduced by Michigan lawmakers earlier this year that would ensure all students have access to school libraries and certified media specialists.
All three bills stalled after being introduced in May, but officials representing The Education Trust-Midwest–a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization–announced its support of them last week in an effort to increase awareness of the issues still surrounding poor literacy rates among children throughout the state.
“Michigan’s literacy crisis is well recognized, and addressing the needs of students requires many forms of support,” Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, said in a statement. “Ensuring that all Michigan students have access to school libraries, trained specialists and a wide range of resources to support student learning is good policy.”
Poor literacy rates were at the core of a failed 2016 federal suit, in which plaintiffs argued that the state of Michigan was depriving children in Detroit’s public schools–97 percent of whom are students of color–of their constitutional rights to liberty and nondiscrimination by denying them access to basic literacy. Nearly all students consistently performed well below grade level in reading and writing–skills which the suit argued are necessary to function properly in society.
Detroit schools, as described in the suit, were overcrowded, lacked a sufficient number of teachers and provided classrooms that were in shoddy condition–freezing in the winter, muggy in the summer and infested year-round with rats and insects. They also said that students went without the most basic supplies, often using outdated and worn textbooks.
Such conditions contributed to dismal test scores and left students woefully underprepared for life after high school, according to the suit.
It was the first case to argue that the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to literacy through the public school system.
The judge overseeing the case dismissed the suit earlier this summer, saying that “access to literacy” was not a fundamental right, though noting that the conditions at some Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”
Low literacy rates are not just a trait of schools in Detroit, however, as 56 percent of third-graders statewide failed the reading test included on the Michigan’s annual assessment in 2017.
The state is ranked 47th in the nation for its ratio of students to certified librarians or media specialists, according to the Michigan Education Association. As of 2012, only 8 percent of public schools in the state have at least one full-time certified media specialist.
“Every student has a right to read, yet not every public school is required to offer students a library to help them grow and develop,” State Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township, said in a prior statement.
His bill, HB 5910, would require that school libraries be staffed by a certified media specialist who can support literacy instruction, as well as integrate information, technology and research skills with the school’s curriculum.
“Even our state’s prisons are required to have a library with a certified librarian,” Camilleri said. “If we can ensure our state’s prisoners have a library available, surely we can work to provide our state’s young minds with access to this vital resource.”
HB 5909, authored by Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, calls on all public schools in Michigan to maintain a school library in order to provide students, teachers and community members with resources to support learning.
And HB 5911, authored by Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, would require schools maintain student access to those on-campus libraries with staff supervision, even when a certified media specialist is not available.