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School Libraries: Quietly Making A Difference

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

A growing body of research links high-quality school library programs to higher reading scores for students. The most convincing studies are careful to account for the impact of community conditions such as school affluence or parents' educational levels. They also control for school characteristics like teacher-pupil ratio and per-pupil expenditures. Statewide studies of this type, led by researcher Keith Curry Lance, concluded library media variables alone explained 2 percent to 8 percent of the variation in reading test scores in three states (see chart). An earlier analysis in Colorado showed that reading scores correlated highly with other types of test scores.

Speaking at the White House Conference on School Libraries in 2002, Lance said, "The school library is one of the few factors whose contribution to academic achievement has been documented empirically, and it is a contribution that cannot be explained away by other powerful influences on student performance."

So if school libraries hold so much potential, the answer is to cram them with books, right? Well, that's a start. But it's not simply a matter of fueling libraries with larger collections, networked computers with Internet access and extended hours. While these actions are essential, research indicates that a well-stocked library, like a high-tech spaceship, depends on human expertise and collaboration to achieve maximum lifting power. Who should be on the "flight crew" in your district?

Library/media specialists The best library programs share two key assets, according to Gary Hartzell's review. The first is a certified library media specialist whose technical skills are complemented by an enterprising attitude. Ideally, this professional has support staff who free up time for developing collections, collaborating with teachers, working with students, training school staff in effective use of information technologies, and establishing relationships with other libraries. (In Colorado, students were likely to earn higher reading scores if their school library collaborated with a local public library offering book presentations and summer reading programs.) The American Association of School Librarians defines a librarian as a "teacher, instructional partner, information specialist and program administrator."

Principals The second key asset shared by the best library programs is a principal who recognizes today's librarian as a vital collaborator and supporter for classroom teachers. Such principals provide sufficient resources and support staff for the librarian. The principal must give librarians and teachers the time, support and opportunities to work together if the library program is to have a significant effect on teaching, technology use and information literacy throughout the school.

Teachers Some teachers may not have experience in working with librarians to accomplish their teaching goals. In-service trainings led by the librarian can help teachers recognize and more fully use the library program to support instructional goals.

Libraries are dynamic agents of learning A recent survey of 13,000 students in 39 Ohio schools revealed three types of "building blocks" for effective school libraries: informational--offering access to print materials and technologies; transformational--developing learning-teaching interventions that promote information literacy, media and technological skills and reading engagement; and formational--affecting student expectations and achievement.

Good libraries encourage students to read for pleasure. According to one study, voluntary reading is the best predictor of reading comprehension, vocabulary growth and spelling ability.

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