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A low-tech tool to build student achievement

Books. It all starts with books.

The power of literacy has long been recognized as transformative in the lives of young children. Understanding this, faculty in the Pacific University College of Education developed grants to supplement early literacy instruction in the Forest Grove School District. These “Reading Is Fundamental” grants allowed us to distribute books to elementary students at Cornelius Elementary School. However, after distributing over 6,000 books during the past 17 years, congressional funding for this program has ended and will not be renewed. On Monday, March 18, the two of us conducted the final RIF book distribution.

As we reflect on the impact that ready access to good-quality books has had on young readers both in and out of school, we advocate for a reexamination of what is truly important in the education of our children, and encourage rethinking the manner in which we fund our priorities.

Science Daily reports, “Whether rich or poor, residents of the United States or China, illiterate or college graduates, parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain, according to a 20-year study led by Maria Evans, University of Nevada.” Research consistently shows that children are better prepared for school if parents read aloud to them, even long after they have learned to read for themselves.

It has been four years since the Forest Grove School District eliminated the budget for library books, and cut the only professional library media specialist position. Approximately two years ago the FGSD spent over half a million dollars on a new reading curriculum concurrent with eliminating all K-4 school library personnel and cutting one-sixth of the district’s teaching positions.

Since this reallocation of funds, the latest test scores show a 9 percent drop in reading across the district, including a greater than 11 percent drop for economically disadvantaged students.

This heartbreaking result comes as no surprise to parents and educators who protested the decision to spend heavily for a new standardized reading curriculum at the expense of teaching and library staff positions, knowing that research did not support this decision.

“In dozens of large-scale studies, involving over 8,700 schools and over 2.6 million students, research has consistently demonstrated that students score an average of 10 to 20 percent higher on reading and achievement tests when their school has a strong library media program. This effect holds, regardless of other school conditions such as student-teacher ratio, overall per-pupil spending, student demographics and community socio-economic conditions. Furthermore, qualitative research shows that the relationship is causal: Effective library media programs directly contribute to higher student achievement.”(Cobb County School District, 2009).

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recently said that fostering reading success by third grade is a key strategy to improve education.

“I have heard this from teachers and we see it in study after study. There is no bigger bang for the buck than investing in early success,” he told the Oregon School Boards Association last fall. “Third grade reading proficiency is a critical indicator of future educational and social success. Our long-term goals for high school graduation and economic vitality are not possible without an emphasis on early grades.”

Yet, nowhere is there evidence of efforts to revive, restore or reinvest in school library books or staff. This is particularly ironic since Forest Grove Superintendent Yvonne Curtis serves on the governor’s Oregon Education Investment Board, whose February 2013 Strategic Plan Summary included plans for increasing library usage as one of its objectives to be completed by June 2013.

To the contrary, the district’s focus seems to be on spending for costly new technologies in support of STEM and other initiatives.

Nearly two-thirds of our district’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We need a research-based response to underperformance in reading in a low-income community, where books are in short supply in many homes. While efforts like RIF or the recent Cornelius book drive can provide supplemental support, our district needs to rethink its funding.

An effective and appropriate approach would be to: upgrade the school libraries by including highly-trained staff with a deep knowledge of children’s literature, build excellent library collections which can motivate struggling readers and back away from the use of prescriptive curricula that disempower our professional educators.

Finally, educating parents about the value of sharing books with their children and encouraging them to read aloud library books is an inexpensive, highly effective means of supporting emergent literacy and boosting achievement. Before embarking on another costly educational tangent that cuts teachers and keeps our libraries antiquated and disorganized, we should secure funding for the most essential and low-tech tools first. It is time to work as a community to support funding those materials that have a proven track record of supporting children’s literacy and learning: books.

Linda Stiles Taylor is an educator and librarian who lives in Forest Grove. Professor Mark Bailey is the Director of the Child Learning and Development Center at Pacific University.



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