Houston school district superintendent Mike Miles recently announced that at least 28 schools would be eliminating librarian positions and using libraries as “Team Centers” to deal with students with behavioral issues. This is a senseless decision. It undermines efforts to build community trust and retain effective principals, teachers and other personnel needed to improve the district.
Why is the policy senseless? In those 28 schools, reading achievement is below the state average, and most students attending those schools are classified by the state as economically disadvantaged. At Wheatley High School, for example, 95% of students are economically disadvantaged, and just 25% of English 1 students met grade level standards in reading.
No research supports removing librarians or limiting students’ access to a library to increase reading achievement or address behavioral concerns.
Research has shown, however, that libraries and librarians affect student achievement and student well-being. They create and expand the school’s catalog of books to reflect the ever-changing interests of teachers, students and families.
Librarians engage students with new technology and provide teachers and students with support on research projects and access to different sources of information. Perhaps most importantly, librarians represent a caring adult who can help foster a lifelong joy for reading while also creating a safe, quiet space for students to read, do their homework, and explore their interests.
Librarians particularly benefit struggling schools such as Wheatley High School and the other 27 campuses in the Houston Independent School District that are eliminating the position. This is because librarians help equip teachers with additional learning resources, teaching tools and technology to better serve struggling readers, including students with disabilities and English learners.
The decision to eliminate librarian positions within schools also undermines broader efforts to improve the school district, regardless of location. An overnight decision to quickly eliminate librarians communicates to HISD employees that at any moment they too could lose their jobs or be subjected to a senseless policy. The superintendent had already made a similar decision when he required that school staff members in the same 28 schools had to reapply to keep their jobs.
This attempt to improve struggling schools lacks a basic recognition that HISD is not the only game in town — teachers can leave for other districts. In fact, researchers have consistently found that the most effective and experienced teachers tend to move from the lowest-performing and least affluent districts to higher performing and more affluent districts. They often cite a lack of administrative support as their primary reason for leaving.
Firing librarians in Black and Latino neighborhoods but not in white neighborhoods also creates significant distrust — and it is hard to imagine Black and Latino parents, community members and their local political leaders will offer their support to an administration they are actively protesting.
Many Black and Latino community members were already concerned that the Texas Education Agency commissioner unilaterally removed a democratically elected school board in a district that was rated a “B” when 42 districts were not rated the prior year, which is equivalent to a “D” or “F” rating.
School districts that improve need a leader who makes sound decisions, builds healthy working conditions for educators, and can foster high levels of community trust. Miles is failing in all of those areas.
The state made a big mistake by appointing a controversial and relatively inexperienced superintendent without a track record of success in large districts. If the state is serious about improving HISD and schools such as Wheatley, they will ensure all children have access to a library on their campus and work to ensure state-appointed superintendents do not adopt policies that are proven failures.
David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.