TN Association of School Librarians – educators or political activists? – Part 3

This series was originally organized for three parts, with Part 3 planned to address “intellectual freedom” as defined, actualized and defended by the library associations. Continued research has revealed much more to address, so the series is likely to include more parts. Intellectual freedom will come a little later.

Concerns have been raised about the swift adoption of the American Association of School Library National Standards (AASL standards) by the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) and TASL’s roll-out training in these standards to Tennessee school librarians. 

A legitimate question is raised regarding whether these standards will be adopted outright by either the Department of Education or the Tennessee General Assembly, or whether, the adoption of the AASL Standards is a fait accompli via the new state-wide school library coordinator position reinstated by the legislature in 2022.

Will TN’s New State-Wide Library Coordinator Law Usher in the AASL National School Library Standards?

During the last legislative session, the Tennessee state legislature passed SB1784/HB1667 sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg and Rep. Sam Whitson. The bill was signed into law by Governor Lee in late May and is codified at Public Chapter 1048. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and with two abstaining votes in the House. 

The law re-establishes a State Coordinator of School Libraries in the state Department of Education (DOE).

The state library coordinator position was an on-going legislative goal of the three-tiered library organizations. In 2019, the president of the American Library Association (ALA) and the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL)co-signed a letter to Tennessee DOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn, advocating to “reinstate” the position. TASL likewise encouraged their members to use “TN Library Legislative Day” to advocate for the state library coordinator position.

The new law requires that the position be filled by a “certified school librarian” who shall do the following:

(1) Assist school librarians in implementing the department’s strategic plan and student literacy and digital citizenship initiatives;
(2) Consult, guide, and train school librarians to strengthen school library programs for students in grades kindergarten through twelve (K-12);
(3) Provide input on revisions to the school librarian evaluation model;
(4) Work with the state library and archives to provide school libraries with equal access to high-quality educational reading materials and resources;
(5) Support the department’s work by promoting best practices among school librarians and technology coordinators; and
(6) Develop and promote strategies for school librarians to partner with classroom instructors to support school and district-level instructional programs. 

Reading the new state law in the context of steps taken by TASL and individual school districts, it seems that the new state law, particularly as it pertains to requirements (2), (3) and (5), was written with an understanding that the AASL standards would be adopted either formally or informally through the required duties of the state library coordinator position.

Research has not turned up any Tennessee school library standards beyond minimum requirements for student-to-librarian and student-to-book collection ratios. Texas appears to have updated their state school library standards by adopting the 2018 AASL Standards.

Certified school librarian

Licenses and/or certification is issued by the Tennessee Department of Education (DOE). The DOE requires school librarian applicants to have an “academic teaching license” and “a Master’s in library science, and/or any program certified by the American Library Association, ALA”.

The ALA and AASL require that any school librarian preparation program that wants ALA or AASL accreditation “must” use the ALA/AASL school librarian preparation standards which “reflect the ideals and language in the AASL [National School Library] Standards.” In fact, the first school librarians preparation standard requires that the AASL Standards be part of their training.

For example, the Masters of Library Science degree program at UTK is accredited by the ALA; Trevecca’s program is recognized by the AASL. The degree program at MTSU is pursuing ALA accreditation. The online degree program from ETSU says its curriculum is “aligned with the standards” of the ALA and the AASL.

The AASL National School Library Standards and TASL

In 2018, the AASL released updated National School Library Standards. Shortly thereafter, TASL was awarded a grant from the AASL to help roll-out training to Tennessee school librarians on the new standards. TASL formed an AASL Standards Task Force to provide the training. TASL has been training school librarians in the AASL standards even though these standards have not been adopted by either the Tennessee Department of Education or the State Board of Education. 

The AASL Standards are discussed in Part 1 of this series.

Knox County has proudly made a big push early on in adopting the AASL standards. Sarah Searles, a Knox County district specialist in library media services for the county schools, published an article in 2019, titled, Implementing the National School Library Standards at the District Level. Searles has served on the board of the AASL and appears to be a leader in the library association network. She is the author of the Explore guide in the Shared Foundation series.

According to Searles, Knox County has “develop[ed] a new school librarian description based on the AASL standards” which presumably would be relevant to requirement (3) of the new state-wide school library coordinator position.

Searles writes that implementing the AASL standards across a school district means that “school librarians will have a clearly defined way of understanding that the standards are how we do business” instead of considering the standards as mere suggestions.

Advocates for adopting the AASL standards suggest that “standards-based practice” will better professionalize and elevate the role and educational impact of school librarians. This in turn will fortify the advocacy for preserving or increasing funding to ensure that all Tennessee schools have a certified school librarian. 

Will Tennessee students benefit if the AASL National School Library Standards are formally adopted? 

If TASL makes an effort to have the AASL standards formally adopted either through Department of Education or legislative action, it’s easy to see that the relevant decision-makers are likely to go along. 

Unfortunately, DOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s judgment has been a matter of concern on various fronts including the no-bid contracts here and here, and being named as a defendant in a July 2022 lawsuit alleging that the Williamson County “Wit & Wisdom” violates state laws “prohibiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory and Common Core”.

Add to the mix was the kerfuffle Schwinn ran into with the Tennessee Senate Education Committee in 2020, over her alleged effort to exert improper influence over the state’s textbook commission. Former DOE employees have alleged that Schwinn created a “toxic” to ““a fairly abysmal” work environment, and at least one member of the House Education Committee threatened to call for a vote of no confidence if she didn’t work to repair the “trust” between herself and committee members.

Bottom line is that confidence in Schwinn’s decision-making is waning and with the very public concerns being voiced about school library book collections, public confidence is likely to hit ground zero should she come out in favor of adopting the AASL standards.

Of great importance as this moves forward is that fact that concerned constituents have access to their representatives and a greater opportunity to try and influence any decision to be made on this matter.

Since the General Assembly passed the bill opening the door to the potential adoption of the AASL standards, the least they can do is to ensure that a thorough and public vetting of the AASL standards happens.

To this end, legislators would be well advised to learn more about the standards, the activity guides, and the foundational structure of the standards. Equally important is for the relevant decision-makers to fully understand how the diversity, equity and inclusion elements embedded in the standards and which help drive the agenda of the three-tiered library associations, will impact students.

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