Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Role of Media Specialists

I give you the following paradox, presented in advice given to a district going through budget cuts:

"What would be one of the first places we should look to cut from our staff?"

"The media specialist."

"Is there something wrong with the individual?"

"No, not at all!"

"So, a media specialist isn't critical for a school?"

"On the contrary, a media specialist is very critical!"

That dialogue doesn't seem to make any sense at first blush, but there is a lot of truth to that statement for many districts. The truth resides not in that somehow media specialists aren't important. It lies in the fact that the way schools are using media specialists is grossly inefficient.

Let's back up for a second. There has been quite a bit of debate around the blogosphere recently regarding the role of media specialists in 21st century schools. Most of the discussion is geared around how media specialists who are not adopting technology knowledge and specialty are becoming irrelevant to a school district.

Darren Draper sums it up by saying that "21st century library - technology = 15th century library (- all the monks)". The collection of a bunch of print books is not crucial to a school now, and Draper (as well as several commentors) argues that if your media specialist is not a specialist in technology, they serve no purpose. That statement is beginning to look like a harsh reality, as the more I talk to administrators who are hiring, technology expertise is now tops on their list.

But, even a harsher stand would be to say libraries themselves should be eliminated. Doug Johnson addresses the question of what purpose do libraries serve in our schools, as some critics see that information is often a click away on the internet. Wouldn't a couple of computer labs serve the school better than the shelves of occasionaly perused books?

I certainly have my own thoughts on these two debates, as I can't imagine a learning environment without a hub of information discovery like a library, but I equally could not justify having a media specialist that was not a building leader in technology. However, I feel there is a debate that is missing from all of this. One where, even if a media specialist is savvy with technology, they still might not be a crucial asset to a school.

The question that's missing is whether a district regards the media specialist as a "resource" or a "curriculum supervisor". If it is only as a resource (and sadly, I would say that's the way it is in a majority of Iowa's schools), that resource can be reproduced in many different ways that doesn't require the cost burden of a paid position.

But, it shouldn't be that way. Instead of "helping students find books" and "helping teachers find websites", the media specialist should be developing the comprehensive media literacy (and in many smaller districts, the infotech literacy) curriculum. They should be a curricular leader, looking at the big picture of student achievement in media literacy. They should be looking at "what gets taught where" within the scope and sequence, overseeing building-wide professional development around media literacy, and supervising the assessment of the curriculum to determine if what they are doing is working. They should be the driving force behind cross-curricular units that meld media with core content, team-teaching during key lessons.

I would also argue that the media specialist should be a key figure on the schoolwide reading committee, doing those above tasks with reading literacy in addition to media literacy. If a media specialist is more concerned with what a student is reading than they are how well they are reading, then we're missing the boat.

Now, none of this is to say it is the media specialist's fault if they aren't in a position of leadership. There are many factors that have played into the setup of media specialist as resource only, and many of those are beyond the specialist's control. But regardless, the curriculum supervising tasks are often then left to teachers, which ties down their time to do other things. When that happens, much like technology integration, media literacy results in an add-on program, not an integrated one.

That's not the way it should be. But if it is, I can see why schools cut specialist positions at the building and go through the charade of assigning one specialist for all the media centers in a district.

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