Elementary school libraries are beholden to a number of stakeholders. The administration, parents, teachers, and students all have their own set of expectations for how the library should best meet the needs of its patrons, who are primarily the students that it serves. However, parents and teachers also are considered patrons of the school library. All players must be taken into consideration when making policy decisions for a school library, which sometimes leads to the rights and needs of the children being served getting pushed aside in order to meet the perceived needs of the adult stakeholders.
Mill Creek Elementary School’s library webpage has the mission statement prominently displayed and is a prime example of a standard elementary school library mission statement.
In an era of increased quantification of learning outcomes and demands coming from many different directions, the library’s mission statement should be reviewed before making any major decisions about the library’s organization and usage, particularly when it comes to leveled reading systems. This will help to guide decisions in a way that stays true to the mission of the library.
“The mission of MCES School Library is to provide equal access of materials and resources to our students that will support the school’s curriculum and encourage the love of reading. Our goal is that students will become independent library users of information & technology while also developing into life-long learners with a love of reading.” (“Read, Learn, & Discover in the MCES Library”, n.d.).
The first goal defined in the mission statement is that the library will “provide equal access of materials” (“Read, Learn, & Discover in the MCES Library”, n.d.). Equal access can be interpreted to mean two things. One, that every student or stakeholder in that library can access and use the materials. No student will be disbarred from using the materials based on race, sex, religion, age, or any other descriptor of the self. Secondly, students shall have equal access to all of the materials within the library system. These two rights are very clearly delineated in the American Library Association’s (ALA) Reader’s Bill of Rights (“Library Bill of Rights”, 2006) and discussed at great length in the interpretation of the Bill of Rights provided on ALA’s website (“Access to Resources and Services in the School Library”, 2007). To further clarify, students should be able to access any book within the library regardless of age, maturity, or reading level. The librarian should not tell a student that a book is off limits for any reason.
The final goal of the mission statement is that the library’s role to “support the curriculum and encourage the love of reading” (“Read, Learn, & Discover in the MCES Library”, n.d.). Librarians in the school setting must attempt to balance the demand for improved reading scores with the intention of introducing children to the sheer joy of reading. These two goals do not have to be opposed to each other, but under the current practices of goal-oriented and test-based learning, it becomes all too easy to favor one half of this mission at the detriment of the other, particularly when a student is told time and again that they cannot have the book that they are drawn to but instead must choose a book based on its “level” and testability. As we will discuss later, this leads to book avoidance, and in some instances, entire genres, such as poetry, will be left neglected on the shelves in favor of books that have been designated a reading level by Accelerated Reader.
A Definition of the Topic
The question becomes one of deciding how to support the teachers in their pursuit of increasing literacy skills for the students that can be quantified through testing while also encouraging students to think of the library as their own space, where they are free to explore materials based on their own individual interests. While testing such as that done through Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader program provides useful information to the teachers about student literacy levels, it has yet to be proven to have any positive effect on student literacy, particularly when compared to students who have free choice over what they browse, check out, and read in the school library setting (Krashen, 2007). What matters most in childhood literacy is access to books and the time to read for pleasure.
As Cregar ascertains in her 2011 article for School Library Journal, when the school library arranges or labels its collection based on a leveling system created by a publishing company, many ethical issues arise. When Accelerated Reader leveling is used in a way that limits a child’s book selection to within his or her reading level and limits certain parts of a library’s book collection to a limited group of students based on their AR scores, this is a direct violation of children’s First Amendment rights (pg. 42).
A second, and equally disturbing, ramification of Accelerated Reader is the loss of privacy for the student library patron. The student’s right to privacy and equitable access to information is paramount to the ethical management of library materials and is at odds with leveled reading labels on spines, discussion of an individual’s reading level in front of other students and choosing to purchase books based on whether or not they come with AR testing (Cregar, 2011, pg. 44). The question then becomes how to marry the school administration’s desire for leveled reading and testing with the students’ right to privacy and equitable access in the library.
Analysis of Issues
Student’s Equitable Access to the Library Collection
According to Cregar, schools will differ in their approach to Accelerated Reader and the leveling of books in the library. While some schools will have AR labels only on the inside cover of the book and allow students to check out books of their own choosing in the library, many other schools will prominently display AR levels on the spines of books and restrict students to checking out only books with AR labels that fall within the student’s “Zone of Proximal Reading,” a range determined by Renaissance provided testing. This practice of restricting and leveling books in order to test and improve functional literacy is at odds with the student’s First Amendment right to intellectual freedom but is often such a contentious subject that librarians opposed to the practice are afraid to confront their administration about it. The librarian is put at odds with her professional code of ethics, because of administrative policies, teacher demands, or sometimes the stronger force of “that’s just the way we’ve always done it,” (Cregar, 2011, pg. 42).
The American Library Association does not equivocate their position on the matter. Their statement on Access to Services and Resources in the School Library contains the following:
“Major barriers between students and resources include but are not limited: to imposing age, grade-level, or reading-level restrictions on the use of resources; limiting the use of interlibrary loan and access to electronic information; charging fees for information in specific formats; requiring permission from parents or teachers; establishing restricted shelves or closed collections; and labeling. Policies, procedures, and rules related to the use of resources and services support free and open access to information.” (“Access to Resources and Services in the School Library”, 2007, n.p.).
When the Book Level marker is so readily viewed, patrons will not only look for those books that fit their AR criteria, but they will avoid other books and no longer make selections based on interest or by returning to a favorite author (Cregar, 2011, pg. 42).
According to Stephen Krashen, what is proven is that when children have more access to books and more time to read for pleasure, their reading improves. He posits that Accelerated Reader does not increase this effect but merely measures it (Krashen, 2002, pg. 25). The question then becomes “what is the benefit to the child of the Accelerated Reader program?” and is it worth the cost of restricted access and discouragement of browsing by interest?
In her 2011 article on the matter, Beckham makes several very practical and easily implemented changes that can encourage a love of learning, empower the students, and reduce the burden on the school librarian. She recommends that any required reading come from the teachers and that the library becomes a place of choice for children so that they come to view visiting the library as a pleasurable experience. Beckham states that children should be able to “check out the number of books they believe they can be responsible for and see how they do (2011, p. 53).” She recommends setting up a system for self-checkout which frees the librarian up to do more reader advisory and, last but not least, states that children should be able to choose their own materials from the library without restriction (Beckham, 2011, p. 53).
Privacy and Confidentiality
On the issue of privacy, the American Library Association declares that the library has a responsibility to safeguard the privacy of its users in order that the patron’s access to materials is unimpeded by fear of judgment or scrutiny (“Policy of Confidentiality of Library Records”, 2006). There are several privacy issues at stake when Accelerated Reader levels are used and displayed prominently in the school library.
One example of this issue is when the students are unable to browse the books with privacy regarding their reading level because of the AR labels that are often placed prominently on the spines of library books. Students are able to see what level their peers are choosing, and an environment of competition and shaming can occur (Cregar, 2011, pg 43). This is warned against by the American Library Association and time and again in peer-reviewed articles on the subject.
An even more egregious example of this lack of privacy is when the librarian chooses to tell the students their reading level in a manner that shares this information with the class or makes statements such as “Put that back and get an orange level book. That book is too high for you.” This limits the patron’s freedom to read, violates his right to privacy, and no doubt has a cooling effect on his love for reading and the library.
The American Library Association states in plain language that children have rights equal to that of adults, including the right to privacy (“Policy of Confidentiality of Library Records”, 2006). In addition, the FERPA (Family Educational Rights to Privacy) Act on 1976 guards the student’s privacy in regard to educational data, which includes any records pertaining to usage of the school library resources. Practices associated with leveling, particularly those practices used by schools who implement Accelerated Reader violate these ethical boundaries and deny the young reader their First Amendment rights (Adams, 2011).
Equitable Access with Regards to Book Selection for School Libraries
Just as a patron should be engaging with the library collection using a variety of criteria, librarians should be ordering books unfettered and based on the potential for interest and not based on constraints such as reading levels or whether or not a book has an Accelerated Reader test attached to it. When librarians choose books based on these parameters, they are denying their students equitable access to information, thus denying the students their First Amendment rights once again and breaking from the ALA Code of Ethics (Cregar, 2011, pg. 44).
Books that do not have Accelerated Reader quizzes will often remain unused in school libraries regardless of their content or potential for enjoyment, assuming these books are even chosen for purchase. According to Cregar, Accelerate Reader has stated that there are entire genres and styles of books “not suitable for quizability, including most how-to books, books of poetry, and graphics-rich, text-box factual books,” (2011, pg. 44). What a dismal picture it paints of school libraries to think of them without books of poetry and factual books with beautiful photography of animals. This method of book selection would create a large gap in the body of knowledge the students have access to, limiting their learning potential and preventing them from exploring their curiosity about the world around them.
In his classic treatise from 1956, Helmut Gerber discusses what he calls the “illiterate literates,” students who understand and can use the proper mechanics of grammar but cannot “synthesize factual knowledge into a meaningful whole,” (pg. 476). When we teach students that reading is something to be done so that they can pull out tidbits and answer quiz questions correctly, we lose sight of the primary goals of reading, enjoyment and the beneficial gain of knowledge and wisdom. Reading should lead to the ability to think critically and express those ideas well. Through limiting library collections, further limiting choice within those collections, and denying young patrons their privacy when choosing what to read, teacher-librarians are allowing the ideals of a large corporation, school administrators, and misguided educational policy-makers to fetter their ability to encourage students to read for pleasure, explore the world around them with curiosity, and seek out the library as a place of freedom and refuge for the mind and spirit. Gerber illustrated complaints of a lack of critical thinking and an inability to analyze and interpret texts at the university level. This is obviously not a problem that was created by Accelerated Reader but in the sixty years since Gerber’s publication, surely we have learned enough about how students learn to create a library environment that encourages critical thought instead of hampers it. The library has always been a beacon of intellectual freedom and should remain so, especially with young minds who will one day be tasked with leading this world we live in and protecting the cherished ideals of democracy and learning.
Library Mission Statement for Mill Creek Elementary School, Williamson County School District
Read, Learn & Discover in the MCES Library!
The Mill Creek Elementary School library has close to 9,150 fiction and nonfiction books, professional books, reference materials, DVD’s, iPads, and other materials available for use by our students and staff. We provide resources and recreational reading materials that enable our students to become both information literate and lifelong readers. Educational technology and professional materials are also available for faculty and staff.
The mission of MCES School Library is to provide equal access of materials and resources to our students that will support the school’s curriculum and encourage the love of reading. Our goal is that students will become independent library users of information & technology while also developing into life-long learners with a love of reading.
Adams, H. R. (2011). The Privacy Problem. School Library Journal, 57(4), 34–37. Retrieved from http://lynx.lib.usm.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=59966458&site=ehost-live
“Access to Resources and Services in the School Library”, American Library Association, May 29, 2007.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/accessresources (Accessed September 16, 2018)
Cregar, E. (2011). “BROWSING BY NUMBERS AND READING FOR POINTS.” Knowledge Quest, 39(4), 40-45.
Gerber, H. (1956). The Illiterate Literates. The Journal of Higher Education, 27(9), 475-512. doi:10.2307/1977525
Krashen, S. (2007). “Accelerated Reader: Once Again, Evidence Lacking.” Knowledge Quest, 38(3), 48-49.
Krashen, S. (2002). “Accelerated Reader, Does It Work and If So, Why?” School Libraries in Canada, 22(2), 24-26.
“Library Bill of Rights”, American Library Association, June 30, 2006. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill (Accessed September 16, 2018)
“Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records”, American Library Association, July 7, 2006. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/otherpolicies/policyconfidentiality (Accessed September 24, 2018)