You can judge a school by its libraries - and city's are a disgrace

November 28, 2007|By Michael Corbin

A new National Endowment for the Arts study links drops in test scores and limited academic achievement to a decline in time spent reading. This self-evident finding offers a clear challenge to all educational reformers across Maryland and particularly in Baltimore, with its shamefully deficient school library system.

If we are to take the report seriously, every school should have a library, and each library should have a trained librarian and be filled with books and opportunities to read. Parents should judge a school by its library and commitment to reading. School districts and their leaders should be judged on the quantity and quality of reading opportunities.

Sadly, the report helps to highlight a counterintuitive truth about our educational institutions: School is often not a place that supports reading.

The chairman of the NEA, poet Dana Gioia, summarizes the problem this way: "As Americans, especially younger Americans, read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they have lower levels of academic achievement. ... Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages and fewer opportunities for advancement."

For Baltimore in particular, where school may be the only opportunity for many of its young people to have the kind of reading experience the report importunes, the situation is bleak. With some of the worst test scores in the state, city schools have some of the worst school libraries - if they have libraries at all.

Only 139 of the city's more than 190 schools report having a library, and many of these libraries are inadequate. The Maryland State Department of Education's report "Facts About Maryland's School Library Media Programs 2005-2006" notes that of schools that reported having libraries, only 3.6 percent of city schools met state collection-size standards and only 29.9 percent met state staffing standards.

City leaders have acknowledged the problem. For instance, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley promised in his State of the City address in February 2001: "By 2005, every school's library will be converted to a state-of-the art information resource center." In the July 2001 issue of School Library Journal, a coming renaissance for city school libraries was also proclaimed by school board member and developer C. William Struever and others. While these promises remain unkept, at least the need was acknowledged. No current city or school leader has focused on the problem.

Last month, George Washington Elementary School in Baltimore was designated a national Blue Ribbon school. Lost in media reports of the unusual accolades given to a Baltimore school was the opening of its new library. That library came not from the city or state, but from the Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, a donation valued at more than $40,000 in materials, equipment and volunteer labor. The school's principal, Susan Burgess, is quoted as saying that the donated library "filled a void that we have endured for more than a decade."

That void still exists across Baltimore and in too many places across Maryland. For all our reform efforts, curriculum changes, high-stakes testing, high-powered superintendents and district CEOs, citizens now have a simple measuring stick: Do we give students the opportunity to read? Do we have books for them to read? Why is whatever else we're doing in school more important than reading? Do we promote a culture of reading? Do we ourselves read?

To read or not to read: That is the question. We know the answer. We also know the consequences.

Michael Corbin teaches at the Academy for College and Career Exploration, a Baltimore public high school that has no library or librarian. His e-mail is

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