School Libraries: Critical to Student Success

How do fully staffed school libraries impact reading and writing scores?

The idea of a school library as a place for kids who like to read isn’t incorrect, but it’s terribly incomplete. Libraries do so much more than that to support the work of teachers, as well as increase student achievement themselves.

More than 34 state studies over the years found that school libraries and librarians are critical components in many things but especially reading skills. Given that nearly every academic, career, and life achievement benefits from a strong ability to read, this is a key success for school libraries.

Specifically, studies have shown time and again that when children can access libraries that are adequately staffed and have plenty of books (and regularly incoming new books), students do better on reading tests. It’s important to note that this is true for all demographics, not just affluent school districts. Students in poverty-level households and communities benefit from having access to reading materials, which they may not have at home, and librarian support. They have some of the strongest ties to literacy success rates when they have a library at their disposal.

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What’s more, librarians don’t work in a silo. They often collaborate with teachers, and when they do, the results are impressive. A study of school libraries in Idaho found that teachers there were three times more likely to rate their literacy teaching as excellent when they worked hand-in-hand with libraries.

However, the reverse is also true. Studies done by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Assessment of Educational Progress both found that schools that lost library staff also saw declines or reduced gains in reading scores. In Pennsylvania, schools with a full-time certified librarian saw 8 percent more students scoring advanced on state reading assessments. If a part-time library worker was added to the full-time position, that percentage was even higher.

Reading, of course, is tied to writing. The same studies discussed above found that schools with full-time librarians were nearly three times more likely to have students reach advanced writing levels than schools with no librarian. What may come as a surprise is that multiple studies found that not only did reading and writing scores improve with access to a robust school library with a full-time librarian, but so did math scores.

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What is it that librarians do in schools that makes these kinds of positive impacts? Studies that looked at the specific roles librarians play found that the schools with the most literacy and math gains had librarians that instructed students, both with teachers and on their own; provided professional development to teachers; met regularly with the principal; served on key school leadership committees; provided technology education and support to teachers and students; and provided reading incentive programs. In other words, they were fully integrated into the schools and very much not working in a private fortress in the library.

Given the challenges facing school librarians today, it’s more than a little worthwhile to realize the enormous value they provide to their schools and students. Help us help them through our advocacy work. If your child is in a school with a library, take a moment and thank the staff — they’ll appreciate it more than you know!

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