The United States no longer has a workforce dependent on operating machinery and performing repetitive tasks. Educators are therefore challenged to change the way students learn and to provide a workforce that is innovative and that has the ability to design new jobs. To do this, students must learn to be problem solvers, to create products that meet real needs, to demonstrate leadership in presenting ideas, and to connect learning to community imperatives. School libraries can help meet these challenges for all students.
School library programs provide context to learning, synthesis of curriculum, and real-life applications of concepts. They can act as the great equalizer when it comes to educating all students and preparing them for the 21st century, and they can offer all students resources and information that can support every facet of their life and learning.
Diverse learners such as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students require equal access to information and resources. School library media specialists provide quality instruction in every subject area so that students can become independent, lifelong learners.
Libraries with print-rich resources and up-to-date technology can also close the gap between privileged and at-risk students. In this time of accountability and assessment, studies show that a well-stocked library staffed by a licensed library media specialist results in increases of 10 to 20 percent on standardized tests. Since 1965, more than 60 studies have affirmed the link between school library media specialists and student achievement. Across the United States, research has shown that students in schools with strong school library programs learn more, get better grades, and score higher on standardized tests than their peers in schools without such programs. School library media programs offer a lottery ticket for enhanced learning that is guaranteed to win!
Obstacles by the Book
Despite evidence that libraries improve student academic achievement, school library media centers face their own challenges. In a time of tough economic decisions, school library media program funds and staff are being cut. Lack of up-to-date resources in the form of computers and books is a barrier for school library media programs. Most disturbing is the lack of universal understanding by teachers, administrators and parents of what good school library media programs can contribute to student learning.
Although the No Child Left Behind law was instituted to provide equal learning to all students, in reality it created an educational system in which the core areas of math, science and reading are often taught in isolation and at the expense of the target skills identified for students to be successful in the 21st century. The challenge with NCLB is that in an increasingly global world, students must be taught to seek multiple perspectives, gather and use information ethically, use social tools responsibly and safely, and practice self-inquiry. Studying for a standardized test often discourages such lessons.
To combat the budgetary difficulties and other roadblocks for library media programs, administrators must find alternative resources for funding and pursue strategic ways of incorporating 21st century skills that are taught by a library media specialist into their curriculum. There needs to be collaboration between teachers and school library media specialists, and supportive voices within the community that can make a difference should be utilized. Administrators need to stress the importance of having their library media specialist’s work recognized. School library media specialists should also be encouraged to apply for one of the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) awards that stress best practices in school libraries.
Today’s New Standards
AASL has unveiled its “Standards for the 21st Century Learner,” which again shows that media specialists play an essential role in preparing students to compete in the global community.
One of the unique changes represented in these library standards is their focus on student behavioral modification to include self-assessment strategies and self-awareness traits to produce lifelong learners. Library media specialists are ready to instruct and prepare students for understanding, learning, thinking and mastering subjects.
Self-assessment strategies mean that students develop internal standards and compare their performance, thoughts and behaviors to those standards. In the past, the library media specialist and the teacher assessed the student learning outcomes, but in reality only students can assess their own thinking, attitudes and behaviors. The standards provide opportunities for students to apply selfassessment techniques individually and in a social context. This can be done through group work and through the use of Web 2.0 resources.
Self-assessment strategies are implemented in the library media program through a variety of projects. For example, one standard states that the learner will “display emotional resilience by persisting in information searching despite challenges.” The disposition to persist is developed and strengthened over time when students are assigned a science project that requires multiple levels of investigation and research culminating in an analysis of the information gathered. A project like this requires regular checkpoints and might require students to keep an electronic log where they write about their progress, problems and reflections. These logs are regularly reviewed by teachers, school library media specialists or peers, and feedback is provided to move the students forward. In this situation, students are made aware of their attitudes and given guidance on how to push past the difficulties to find the next level of answers. This example also provides self-assessment strategies, because the students are monitoring their own information-seeking processes and adapting as necessary.
The AASL’s “Standards for the 21st Century Learner” recognize the complexity of learning and the necessity for students to become skilled at acquiring knowledge. The dispositions in action and self-assessment strategies enable the learner to adapt these skills to any context for academic and personal use.
Strengthening New Literacies
Critical to all students is the need to build skills using technology. The current use of technology in schools can trivialize its comprehension, but library media specialists can teach students to understand the power behind technology when it is used to answer questions and organize knowledge. School libraries can create engaging and innovative lessons to expand on students’ techsavvy skills and basic reading literacy. For instance, high school library media specialist Hattie Smart, in my district of Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools, recently brought storytelling into the digital age by using Web 2.0 resources. She had students create their own online comic books and post them in a blog. Students could contribute to the blog discussion from any computer and learn more information about the topics on which the comics were based.
The responsibility of a school library media specialist is to teach all students to inquire and think critically, draw conclusions, make informed decisions, share knowledge, participate ethically, and pursue aesthetic growth. To reinforce this message, Henrico County recently created a film entitled Today’s Library, which explains the role of school libraries in 21st-century learning. The video affirms how school libraries have changed over the years and has been used by some states for teacher and administrator training, since it names as obsolete many of the 20th-century functions of a school library.
Administrators now have an opportunity to continue the library media program success story for the students and teachers in their school communities. Key decision-makers who support best practices for school libraries, including curriculum integration, teacher collaboration, information rich resources, and certified library staff, enable libraries to bridge learning by connecting the curriculum and information skills.
School libraries—not simply stacked with books—need to be acknowledged as major players in student academic achievement. Transformative school leaders can provide a school environment that both fosters a lifelong love of learning and places school libraries at a fixed line item at budget time.
Ann M. Martin is the president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). She is currently the educational specialist for library information services at Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools and author of Seven Steps to an Award-Winning School Library Program (Libraries Unlimited, 2005).