Freedom to Read? Part Three: OSDE Pushes School Libraries Away from National Standards
By Brendan Hoover
Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series about State Superintendent Ryan Walters and the erosion of intellectual freedom in Oklahoma’s public-school libraries. Since taking office, Walters has called on lawmakers to remove books from school libraries, instituted book-banning rules, shunned the American Library Association, and recommended deregulating over 200 districts from state library staffing standards.
January 31, 2024
New developments in 2023 at the Oklahoma State Department of Education have pushed the state’s public-school libraries further away from accepted national standards.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters continues his assault on intellectual freedom as he proposed new OSDE information literacy standards on December 6 that would eliminate all references to the American Library Association, railing against what he called its “activist, left-wing standards.” Those standards concern how students utilize media and conduct research to enhance learning.
Walters claims the ALA has fought against filtering of internet pornography in libraries, allowed libraries to bring in inappropriate books, and attacked parents who challenged books in their local libraries. “We will not allow taxpayer-funded, woke indoctrination of our children in Oklahoma,” said Walters in a press release.
As referenced in Part Two of this series (“Walters Calls for Removal of LGBTQ+ Books”), Kirkpatrick Policy Group is still waiting for OSDE to fulfill an open records request submitted in December about where exactly “pornographic” and “sexualized” content is being shelved in Oklahoma’s public-school libraries.
Oklahoma adopted ALA school library standards in 2007 under then State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, and school libraries across the state have incorporated these standards into learning without major concern until now, Oklahoma Library Association President Dana Belcher said in a statement. “Libraries are rooted in our commitment to the freedom of information by providing materials and access to resources to all and in a way that represents our diverse communities. These are core principles upheld by ALA and libraries across our country,” Belcher said.
The new information literacy standards—which are in a review process requiring public comment and then state board of education, legislative, and gubernatorial approval—will focus solely on developing skills, encompassing the inquiry process, and incorporating modern technology such as artificial intelligence, Walters said. “The new, grade-band approach will help ensure our kids have the tools they need to make sound decisions in the ever-evolving information age.”
The American Association of School Libraries, a division of ALA, launched a new set of standards and guidelines in 2018 that it says will help school librarians establish effective school libraries and prepare K – 12 students for college, careers, and life. “Oklahomans have the right to access information on a variety of topics and viewpoints without restrictions, a fundamental act of participation in a democracy. We fully support the role of ALA’s values in the role of learning for Oklahoma’s students,” Belcher said.
Walters and the ALA have butted heads before. Coinciding with last October’s Banned Book Week, the ALA’s annual celebration of intellectual freedom, Walters announced that OSDE was partnering with Moms for Liberty, a national conservative nonprofit known for leading the charge to ban books, to declare “Teach Kids to Read” week. “Instead of focusing on real literacy solutions for our students, the (ALA) and their partners choose to focus on their agenda of political indoctrination and so-called ‘banned books,’” Walters said.
Students score poorly on standardized reading tests.
Oklahoma policymakers have spent vast amounts of time, money, and manpower in recent years working to improve reading scores in state K – 12 public schools, with limited success. Only one out of four Oklahoma fourth graders scored proficient or better on the state’s standardized reading test in 2022, said Dr. Megan Oftedal, executive director of the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), during an October 26 interim study on reading scores before the House Committee on Common Education. Oklahoma’s scores are nine points below the national average and falling, Oftedal said. “When students aren’t able to read by third grade, they are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma.”
Since its passage in 1997, the Reading Sufficiency Act mandates improvement in state students’ reading ability by the third grade, a crucial benchmark that experts say is when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. The law has been amended several times, but state reading scores have fallen in recent years, according to OEQA’s Oftedal. In 2015, thirty-three percent of fourth graders scored proficient or above on state standardized reading tests.
A massive public education funding package approved by state legislators in 2023 earmarked $10 million toward a three-year program to employ a literacy instructional team to support school districts. The program deploys fifteen literacy coaches in teams of three to low performing school sites across the state, said Melissa Ahlgrim, OSDE’s program director of literacy policy and programs, during the interim study. The coaches work with administrators, teachers, and students to implement new educational systems that will help schools meet the Reading Sufficiency Act requirements. “We want to set schools up for continued success,” Ahlgrim said.
Despite the good intentions of some within OSDE, Walters and the rest of the Oklahoma State Board of Education don’t seem to be following suit. Part Four of this series will discuss ways the state’s education board is relaxing requirements that public-school districts must follow regarding school library staffing, to the detriment of students.
Kirkpatrick Policy Group is a non-partisan, independent, 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization established in 2017 to identify, support, and advocate for positions on issues affecting all Oklahomans, including concern for the arts and arts education, animals, women’s reproductive health, and protecting the state’s initiative and referendum process. Improving the quality of life for Oklahomans is KPG’s primary vision, seeking to accomplish this through its values of collaboration, respect, education, and stewardship.