This week’s discussion topics helped me place my system of interest, libraries, in the bigger picture of systems of systems. Discussion topic three asked us to think about how the interconnections between systems impact stakeholders’ behavior in a system example. I looked at the systemic failure of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for the exercise. Delving into the news and research related to the problems with CPS made me realize just how connected that system is to the larger Illinois state government system. Decisions made at the state level that negatively impact the state’s own budget ended up trickling down to all the systems within the state that depend on state funding. CPS relies heavily on state funding in addition to local funding (e.g., city funding, earmarked taxes). CPS is such a behemoth of a school system that it has suffered greatly under the near bankruptcy of the state of Illinois. All school systems (K-12, higher education) have been affected by Illinois’ financial fiasco to some extent. However, CPS has fared worse because it is the largest school system in the state and because it is dealing with additional strains, such as high rates of poverty, that have negative impacts on student learning. Those additional strains led to decisions, such as a push for charter schools, that further strained the financial problems facing CPS. The fixes that were offered to manage the CPS system have failed across the board. Charter schools have failed to bridge gaps in achievement. Closing schools with low enrollment has created additional burdens for the schools that have taken in those students. Cutting budgets has led to impasses in contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, leading to low teacher morale and staffing cuts. Increased school board oversight has led to a high turnover with principals, who cite reasons for leaving as low autonomy and too much paperwork.
This brings me to the libraries in CPS. What has happened to them amidst the battle to fix the system? Some have been shuttered, and school librarians at CPS are now few and far between, despite the fact that school libraries are significantly strongly correlated with higher reading scores, even when controlling for student income levels. What the exercise with CPS shows me is that libraries as a system are at risk of extinction when the health of the systems they support are in jeopardy. There is documenting support of this phenomenon on a global level. Why? I believe that the answer lies in the invention of the Internet. If classrooms are stocked with books and schools have access to the Internet, who needs a school librarian? Of course, this makes no sense from a systems thinking perspective because the cost of purchasing the same books for multiple classrooms far exceeds the cost of purchasing books as shared resources. Furthermore, in the age of “fake news,” students need an expert to guide them through the information ecosystem. Classroom teachers are not qualified to fill this role, as many of them lack strong information literacy skills. In the long term, school library systems are necessary to the health of the K-12 systems like CPS. Though the fate of libraries (and librarians) may seem like something that must be accepted as a result of the trickle down effect of dysfunction from the systems that support it, this is not necessarily true. What if librarians lobbied harder to save their libraries (and themselves)? What if librarian educators collaborated with teacher educators to create a culture of support for libraries so that future education leaders better understood their value? In the health of a vulnerable system like libraries, human capital is the greatest resource.