This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30, 2010 - give an ebook to the library

Years ago I visited a cluster of libraries in north Texas. One of the library directors told me that their equivalent of a county commissioner couldn't see a reason to buy new books for the library. He said, "People haven't read all the old ones yet!"

And he was right. But the modern library, like the modern grocery or clothing store, survives on fresh inventory.

So what happens to the old stuff? In library jargon, materials that don't get used (which often includes older materials) are "weeded." They are removed from our collection.

Maybe that makes you sad. But in truth, this is one of the great untold success stories of libraries. Such books aren't just tossed into dumpsters - unless they're 1958 encyclopedias or dangerously outdated textbooks.

There is a brisk after-market of library materials.

We give them to poorer libraries. We give them to charter schools. We give them to teachers. We give them to churches. We sell them individually in our own booksales, and by the lot to Amazon (which shares back a commission from each sale). We send them overseas to our soldiers, or in cooperation with civic groups to international schools. What can't be used is recycled.

The wonder of print is that its life after it leaves the library is just beginning. What is weeded from our shelves blooms in many other hands (and may show up in library booksales more than once!).

I view this as perfectly in keeping with the mission of the library. We buy a lot of books, about 150,000 a year. But we also weed about that many. Bottom line? Combined, every year, we release about a third of a million titles into our communities, all at a fraction of their original cost. The more books in people's homes and hands, the closer we come to fulfilling our goal to promote literacy.

Last week I wrote about our ebook project: e-Discover the Classics. We offer about 500 classic titles for free download. And in fact, just this week I re-read Conan Doyle's "Hound of the Baskervilles" and "She," by H. Rider Haggard. I read them, in fact, on my cell phone, which proved remarkably convenient.

There's a lot to be said for the classics. They're not just old. They're good!

But here's something you probably don't think much about. What's the after-market for ebooks?

If I buy a book, the odds are good that at some point I'll give it away. I want to share it with a friend. I want to donate it to the library to route it to someone else, as above.

How do I give away an ebook?

If ebooks really do start to displace print - a trend that seems likely, although print in some form will no doubt remain for a long time - that question matters. Ebook content is locked down to prevent casual sharing of a file. Obviously, if you can just email a book to somebody, then that cuts into sales by quite a lot.

But if you can't give it away, even though you bought it and supposedly own it, the net result is the disappearance of that aftermarket. Fewer cheap books. Fewer donated books.

Fewer books.

I've just been appointed to a national task force of the American Library Association to tackle this issue, among others. My idea is this: I'd like to launch a national campaign. In 2011, give an ebook to the library, so we can let other people read it. Don't know how to do that?

Shouldn't we figure it out?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010 - e-Discover the Classics

We librarians know what’s going to happen. Especially after we hosted, in partnership with Best Buy, a couple of “tech petting zoos” to let people play with the latest gadgets, we’re sure that somewhere around Dec. 27, lots of people will bring their shiny new ebook readers to the public library, eager to scout out what we’ve got for them.

Most e-reader companies offer their own online stores. But that can get expensive. As I have learned for myself, you can spend more in an afternoon than you pay for the public library in a year!

It’s good to remember: libraries are a public purchasing cooperative. Why not leverage your library investment to gain access to books in this new format?

We already have something called Overdrive -- brand new ebooks (as well as audiobooks) that you can check out from us much like a regular library book. (Just click on “downloadables” from our library website at DouglasCountyLibraries.org.) That program works with several ebook readers, among them the iPad, the Sony eBook Reader, and the Nook. It does not work with the Kindle -- not because we don’t want it to, but because Amazon has its own, proprietary format.

Many epublishing vendors haven’t quite figured out how to deal with shared public content. They’re worried that library use will eat into private purchases. (In fact, libraries account for about a quarter of all book buying nationwide. We’re not only good to publishers, we grow the market for readers.)

Some vendors fear that ebooks will do to book publishers what file sharing did to music publishers: bypass the middle man altogether. And thus we have Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues to contend with.

Some vendors only offer their products through their own locked-down websites. That means you have to search our catalog, then search other websites. It’s inconvenient and time-wasting.

So I’m pleased to announce a statewide public library holiday special – e-Discover the Classics.

Thanks to the Colorado Library Consortium, your local library now offers almost 500 classic titles (419 ebooks, and 47 audiobooks), all downloadable for free. Harvested from Project Gutenberg, which features public domain and other freely accessible works, the e-Discover the Classics Collection is integrated right into our library catalog.

To find, for instance, “Jane Eyre” or “the Brother’s Karamazov” you can just search for them as usual. But there will be a new “tag” in the record: “click here to access a downloadable book.”

Do that, and you’ll be taken directly to the download page of Project Gutenberg, which has files in a variety of formats appropriate for your computer, your new ereader, or your cell phone.

Because these titles are copyright free, they’re yours. Keep ’em. Send the files to others. It’s perfectly legal. And five hundred titles isn’t a bad beginning for your personal elibrary.

We’ll also highlight a nice, compact list of the titles on our website, so you can just work through them as a project.

Finally, we’ve also put up a page where people can find useful links for using their new ebook readers, or leave questions and comments. It’s here: http://blogs.douglascountylibraries.org/ediscovertheclassics/.

An example of our tips: I highly recommend the free e-content management software called Calibre (http://calibre-ebook.com/). It should be one of the first programs you install on your computer after you get your new reader. It works with most file formats and devices.

Publishers do have to change with the times. So do libraries. But there’s still a place for thoughtful public exploration, collaborative purchasing, and the fearless advocacy of literacy and lifelong learning.

Your public library: it’s what’s next in reading.

LaRue’s Views are his own.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

December 16, 2010 - think globally to reform education

I've been accumulating strong opinions about K-12 public education over the past few years. Let me try to do three things this week: lay out what the problem is, point out some of the key obstacles to reform, and offer a few of my own suggestions for creating a world class American education system.

The problem: according to a number of studies (see the Programme for International Assessment, for instance, which measures the educational achievement of 15-year-olds), the United States doesn't even make the top ten in reading ability, math or science.

A few months ago I reviewed a sample of world literacy studies. The conclusion was stark: the current generation of American students may be the first in the history of our nation to be less well-educated than its parents.

We wouldn't accept that kind of performance at the Olympics, where the United States does very well. But athletic performance won't help us compete in global economic markets.

And the issue is more than us winding up as the cheap, dumb labor of the world. We need smart people here at home, too.

Key obstacles: local control. This premise, this article of faith, seems to unite liberals and conservatives. But review the data above. It doesn't work.

When it comes to education, we are regularly outperformed by nations who adopt clear and consistent national standards. Comparing student performance within the state, or among states, just isn't good enough. There are Olympic educational standards, international benchmarks, and programs that work better than ours.

I would start with textbooks. American textbooks are almost uniformly bland, boring, bulky, and overpriced. We need a national library of short, clear, progressively more complex chapters, available to all, downloadable to any computer or ebook reader, easily printed into pamphlets.

Another obstacle: the enduring anti-intellectualism of our culture. Even within our schools, I see or hear about teachers, administrators and parents who don't approve of Gifted and Talented programs, or denigrate International Baccalaureate programs, yet do support competitive sports.

Studies done right here in Colorado demonstrate that one of the key predictors of academic success is the presence of a strong school library program. And yet the average age of the books in Colorado school libraries today is 15 years.

We know what works. And we don't do it.

Another obstacle: deliberately misleading politics. How often have you heard the statement, usually attempting to justify vouchers, "I should be able to use my tax money as I please. After all, it's my money!"

In 2009, my Douglas County School District property tax came to $700. If I'm going to claim $5,000 a year or so to send my son to a local Christian school, then I'm not just using my money. I'm using yours, too. I'm using a lot of people's.

Claiming public money to teach my children that, for instance, the world is only 6,000 years old and that evolution is false, not only violates the First Amendment's prohibition against the establishment of religion, but it also won't get us any closer to international competitiveness in the sciences. It's bad civics and bad educational policy.

So what to do about it all? I think we need to think globally. Let's stop blaming teachers for their failure to execute an incoherent educational policy. Let's do what honest scientists and sports trainers do: look at the evidence.

Who does the best job educating their young, and how do we adapt their lessons and improve on them?

Right now, that isn't us.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

December 9, 2010 - charter choice leads to same results

There are many kinds of educational choice in Douglas County. There's public education at your local school. There's open enrollment, where you can move your child from one neighborhood public school to another. There's public education through charter schools. There's private education, whether secular or religious. There's homeschooling.

Which is right? It depends, naturally enough, on both the wishes of the parents and the needs of the child. I know from overseeing literacy programs through the years that no matter what the current educational philosophy is, it fails a consistent percentage of the student population. We don't all learn the same way, and any rigid approach to teaching inevitably misses the mark for some.

As an early advocate of charter schools, I believe in the value of experimentation. But I try to be honest about the results, too.

For instance, I don't see much press about the well researched results presented in The State of Charter Schools in Colorado: 2008-2009.

It has a lot of data, too much to summarize here. But I will quote this to give the larger context: "During the 2007-2008 school year, 141 charter schools operated in the state of Colorado. ... Charter school enrollment in 2007-2008 represented 6.9% of the total public school enrollment. If all of the charter schools were combined into an imaginary district, the enrollment of that district would be the fourth largest in the state. Of the 133 charter schools that responded to the survey, 66% of charter schools (88) stated there was a waiting list/lottery pool for their school. The average waiting list size was 462 students, ranging from two to 7,500, and the statewide total was 38,374."

In Douglas County, again in 2007-2008, there were 58,723 students in the whole district. There were 6,580 students enrolled in charter schools, a little over 11% of our total student population.

So clearly, there's an interest and a need for alternative education. But how well does it do?

The report presents school statistics by ethnicity, special needs, and details student performance in reading, writing, and math. Here's the bottom line: in most areas, charter schools are a lot like public schools. In the areas of reading and math, Colorado charter school students often do better than their public school counterparts in grades 6, 7, and 8. But that reverses in high school; they do poorer.

Homeschoolers tend to do much better in elementary years, too. But not all parents feel themselves equipped to teach higher math and physics.

Public education has a political dimension. It is the place where we want to acculturate waves of immigrants, and to forge patriotic citizens (the Pledge of Allegiance and civics), yet also to encourage critical thinking. It is the place where we wish to feed the hungry (the school lunch program). It is the place where we wish to grow public health awareness (required vaccinations, sex education, drug education). It is the place where we want to ensure the physical fitness of our young (P.E. programs). It is the place where we want to nurture and excite tomorrow's technologists (through Science/Technology/Engineering/Math programs); it is the place where we want to shelter them from the wickedness of the theory of evolution (see attempts to insert "intelligent design" into science classes).

It is a place where so much is expected, even when the expectations are profoundly self-contradictory, that success is a long shot.

In fact, I believe Douglas County has offered my children an excellent education, although I had to pay close attention.

But the truth is, America's primary and secondary public education system is quickly falling behind the rest of the world. Simply offering more "choices" that produce pretty much the same results isn't much of a plan.

Next week, I'll speak frankly about some of the other problems that come with "choice," and begin to sketch what real educational reform might look like, and why we need it.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

December 2, 2010 - curricular reform is easy

I am the result of two educational influences: public schools, and the public library.

Growing up as a boomer in the 50s and 60s, my typical class size was 34. I really don't recall that being a problem. School was generally better than home for me, and I had teachers with high expectations. I think we all got a pretty solid grounding in the basics.

I learned to speed read to get through my boring and tedious fourth grade social sciences textbook as quickly as possible. As I got older, I pretty much lived at the public library, and eventually was reading a book a day, seven days a week, mostly biographies and science fiction.

After college, and grad school, I really didn't think about formal education that much.

Until I had kids.

Like many earnest and clueless parents, I started to worry. Public education in the 1990s seemed very different from my own experience. I was already in Douglas County when there was something of a movement beginning. In brief, a small group of parents believed that there were very few, and very inconsistent standards for curriculum.

I started attending various school district meetings, and came to share that concern. Consider this: I know from working with European and Asian Rotary exchange students that a year in America doesn't even count toward their graduation. Almost all of our exchange students got straight As, not only because they tended to be smart, but because they had covered our content several years earlier.

If you go to school in Iowa, Minnesota, or Texas, then come to elementary school in Colorado, you'll find that you're about a year ahead.

Although the CSAP has changed this somewhat (and not always for the better), it's still true that if you move around the state, you'll find that there's not much curricular consistency from school district to school district. Even more amazing to me is the variance not only between schools within a district, but within classes at the same grade level in the same school building. That's because we have "local control" and "site-based management." Unlike most of the people I know, I think these policies serve our nation poorly.

After reading up on all this, my wife and I decided to homeschool our kids at least through the first grade. We believed it was important (a) to work through the developmental stages of play and values formation with them, instead of outsourcing that to crowds of other children, and (b) to lay a firm foundation of reading, writing, and math.

Oh, and (c) it was fun! We took our kids to libraries (of course!), plays, museums, concerts, national parks, shopping malls, local political and volunteer events, sporting events, and more. Children, all children, are just amazingly bright, and seeing their fascination with the world was rejuvenating for us, too.

Later, I was one of the original founders of Colorado's first parent-initiated charter school: Castle Rock's Academy Charter. A friend of mine, Laurel Iakovakis, and I pushed the Core Knowledge Curriculum, which was later adopted by many charters. Laurel was the first dean of the Parker Academy. Later still, I served on the Academy Charter School board. My daughter went to Academy Charter from grades 2 through 5 (then homeschool again for a year, then public school, then Douglas County High School's spectacular International Baccalaureate program).

I learned some valuable lessons through that experience. First, curricular reform is easy. It really is. You pick a philosophy, find supporting material, hire teachers who believe in your approach, and there you are.

Second, there's more to a school than curriculum. There's institutional finance, and governance, and personnel management, and extra-curricular activities, and a confounding mix of contrary expectations by the parents.

I mention all this to begin to lay the ground work for a consideration of "choice" in public education. As I hope my experience makes plain, I've dabbled in a fair amount of it.

But next week I'd like to talk not just about choice, but about results. Eventually, we'll get around to the topic of the day: vouchers.

LaRue's Views are his own.