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Quality education and the need for reform is one of those hot topics that touch people’s deepest beliefs about child-rearing, community and our country. Some of the topics bundled under education reform include school choice, school finance reform, standards-based education, testing and the 21st-century classroom—but excluded is the role that public libraries can and should play as a true collaborator and support structure that undergirds real reform. A missed opportunity in planning for education reform ignores the significance of public libraries as a viable partner in the educational continuum.

For some time now, reformers at the state and local levels have attempted to revolutionize the way schools operate and students learn with a variety of top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top changes in administration, curriculum and outreach. One of the many issues surrounding education reform is equal access to high-quality education. The factors that improve school quality—well-qualified teachers, modern buildings, adequate funding, effective leadership and comprehensive curriculums—are seemingly less prevalent in schools serving predominantly poor or minority students, leading to achievement gaps between low-income, African-American and Latino students and higher-income, predominantly white students.

For Philadelphia the achievement gap is ever-present. Philadelphia remains the poorest of the country’s major cities, with 25 percent of individuals and more than 30 percent of children living below the poverty line. The city routinely experiences greater unemployment than the U.S. average, and the Department of Labor reports that the city’s unemployment rate climbed from 6.1 percent in April 2008 to 11.2 percent in November 2010. Additionally, Philadelphia’s widespread poverty is accompanied by widespread low literacy. According to a study by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board (2009), 52 percent of the city’s working-age adults possess below-basic literacy skills. This is a massive impediment for thousands of Philadelphians, and without educational programs provided by the public library, particularly at the critical early childhood stage, the next generations are also likely to struggle with low literacy.

Studies have shown that children in poverty are far less likely to be read to than middle- and upper-income children. A U.S. Department of Education longitudinal study of 14,000 children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds born in 2001 found that less than one third of the low-income children were read to or told stories on a daily basis (U.S. Department of Education 2009). This was true when they were nine months, two years, and even four years old. Conversely, the middle- and upper-income children were exposed to reading and storytelling for more regularly. Low-income households typically have fewer books, lower maternal literacy, and less recognition of the importance of reading than their middle- and upper-income peers. Thus, low-income children are at a distinct disadvantage for developing the pre-reading skills that constitute kindergarten readiness, and this readiness gap frequently leads to a long-term achievement gap.

In 2005 the School District of Philadelphia found that nearly half (54 percent) of all public school children were already behind in reading preparedness when they started school, and the majority who start behind never catch up to grade-level proficiencies (developmental reading assessment results cited in Philadelphia Safe and Sound [2007]). In 2009, 61 percent of Philadelphia’s fourth graders scored below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 34 percent nationwide. Unfortunately, these children are at great risk for ultimately dropping out of school, and without intervention the cycle of intergenerational illiteracy is likely to continue when they have children of their own.