Guest Column

A Source for Better Scores? The School Library

by Kathy Patten, assistant professor of educational leadership, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

The mandate to measure achievement quantitatively, usually by standardized test, is putting pressure on principals and district-level administrators. Most schools already have one available resource that has been proven to boost achievement levels—the modern school library.

When the library is properly planned, prepared and activated, students’ test scores may be 10 to 18 percent higher for students whose schools have better developed library programs compared to students whose schools have weaker libraries, according to a Colorado-based study, “How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards.” At the recent White House Conference on School Libraries, Keith Curry Lance, who directs the Library Research Service in Denver, Colo., stated, “The size of the library in terms of staff and collection is a direct predictor of reading scores.” Note that he referenced not just size in book holdings but also staffing. That means certified, educated librarians and aides to assist with the mountain of clerical work present in libraries.

Studies by Lance, a sociologist, and two library researchers who looked at schools in Pennsylvania, Oregon, Iowa, New Mexico and Alaska have concluded that students' test scores are correlated with:

* a school library's levels of professional and support staffing;

* how much time media center staff spend teaching information literacy skills to students;

* planning instructional units with teachers and providing in-service training to teachers;

* how long the library media center is open;

* the existence of a relationship—formal or informal—between the media center and the public library;

* the numbers of computers in the media center and the school that provide access to library catalogs, licensed databases and the Internet; and

* the existence of a collection development policy that addresses challenges or reconsideration requests.

Information Literate
As adults we know how libraries work. But children cannot be expected to have an understanding of how the library works when they walk in the door. Their guide is the librarian. A librarian-less library is the scenario that some school boards and administrators feel is acceptable. For students, that is a dangerous and severe loss.

If a child loves Harry Potter, the librarian directs him or her to explore Eva Ibbotson, Philip Pullman, T.A. Barron, Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce and similar authors. A librarian shows the child how an index works, how to find books on dachshunds if the catalog shows none under his misspelled “doxhounds.” The librarian is an information specialist, a “knows how to find it” person. The librarian is the only teacher in the school who pulls information literacy all together across the curriculum.

The information explosion is not a myth. No one can hope to know everything, but students will learn how to find and evaluate the information they need when they need it—if there is a librarian to show them. Can a volunteer or untrained aide really teach a student how to be a savvy information consumer? This is what information literacy is and this is what librarians teach extremely well. And by doing so, student achievement benefits. A librarian who is not providing the services to help raise academic achievement needs remediation in what the modern program offers to the school community.

Fully Informed
As an administrator, what should you expect of your library program and the librarian? Studies point to three important attributes of a school library program that can lead to higher test scores.

Most importantly, the school needs a certified, well-educated, progressive librarian in accordance with “Information Power,” the American Association of School Librarians’ national standards for information literacy, which were updated in 1998. The librarian should not just be aware but fully informed of these principles and applications.

Students should be able to visit the library at the time when they need information, not just on a rigid time schedule. School library hours may vary from week to week as curriculum and student information needs vary. Mrs. Brown may schedule a class to visit Thursday at 10 this week but need the media center at 11 on Tuesday and Wednesday the next week.

This is a “just-in-time” attitude borrowed from the manufacturing sector. A piece of information is delivered at the time it is needed: bringing students and information together so that information is meaningful and can become knowledge. It is the librarian’s task to make sure that the library is of such quality and casts such charisma that all teachers and students will visit regularly.

The librarian should engage with students and teachers throughout the day. Lesson units teaching curriculum and library skills are prepared by both the librarian and teachers. When classes or individual students visit the library, the librarian is in the facility communicating with students, helping to teach a lesson or providing guidance in locating sources or leisure reading. Clerical work is part of the library program but should be done by an aide and trained volunteers. The librarian’s time should be spent on the profession’s core activities of teaching, collaboration, selection and planning.

These initial steps will lead to a library program that yields tangible improvement in achievement and produces students who can read well and think analytically about the information saturating their world. A knowledgeable librarian is mandatory to bring it all together.

Kathy Patten is an assistant professor of educational leadership, Middle Tennessee State University, P.O. Box 91, Murfreesboro, TN 37132. E-mail: