The Secret to Better Literacy Scores Starts with School Librarians
Cutting school librarians hurts academic achievement.
It’s a sad reality that in the American educational system, students are more often defined as data points than as distinct individuals. But until the value of learning is measured by something other than standardized test scores, districts and educators will continue to search for new ways to increase achievement.
With historic declines in math and reading scores during the pandemic, school leaders are more desperate than ever to find new fixes to turn things around. New research shows that there might be a secret weapon to improve reading, and it’s not another online learning tool or a new piece of curriculum.
The answer, it turns out, is the school librarian. That’s according to the EveryLibrary Institute in a new report titled Could School Librarians Be the Secret to Increasing Literacy Scores?
In the report, author Nijma Esad, a school librarian from Washington, D.C., shows a strong connection between student access to librarians and gains in the literacy-based component of standardized tests for students in DCPS. Those findings add to the long record of national research that has found that certified librarians and a fully-funded school library program can make a powerful impact in boosting literacy scores.
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How Librarians Impact Reading Scores
For more than three decades, researchers have recognized the connection between a school librarian and improved student reading scores. Studies have shown that students tend to earn better standardized test scores in schools that have strong library programs.
A 2011 study commissioned by a group of Pennsylvania state library organizations found that
increased reading and writing scores amongst students could be attributed to their access to a strong library program with a certified school librarian.
Researchers Keith Curry Lance and Debra E. Kachel have also concluded that “reading and writing scores tend to be higher for all students who have a full-time certified librarian, and when it comes to reading, students in at-risk subgroups tend to benefit more than all students combined.”
After years of fighting against attempted cuts by the District of Columbia Public School system, Esad conducted research of her own for the Washington (DC) Teachers’ Union to quantify just why school librarians are so important in schools. Garnering responses from elementary, middle, and high school librarians, Esad found that:
- 91 percent of respondents said their school saw gains in the literacy-based component of standardized tests while they have been the librarian.
- 69 percent of respondents said they have regular access to students.
- Over 80 percent of respondents believe their additional support through book clubs, author visits, reading challenges, and unrestricted access to books for pleasure reading have contributed to the literacy gains their schools have seen by fostering a love of reading.
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While the findings of Esad’s report are encouraging, districts around the country have continued to cut school librarians despite the clear impact they can make on student performance.
During the 2020–21 school year, Pennsylvania saw the most cuts in the past four years to school librarian positions, with 93 positions cut across 500 districts. And in Esad’s home city of Washington, D.C., more than 20 library positions, many in the most underserved, under-resourced communities, were cut in the 2019–20 school year.
While further research is needed to determine the exact impact certified librarians have in boosting literacy scores across the nation, we need to protect these important positions now. As the report shows, a lack of support for school libraries has real, lasting consequences; students who have little or no access to librarians and the services they provide are disadvantaged in ways that can affect them for the rest of their lives.
To help ensure that every student has access to a certified school librarian, Esad says to start with advocacy. “Parents, politicians, unions, bloggers, lobbyists need to know who we are and what value we bring to students’ educational experiences,” she writes.
To do that, Esad says librarians need to be better about promoting their important work. Because librarians are so often behind-the-scenes workers, their impact isn’t always obvious. That’s why it’s important for librarians to share their work, whether over social media, a newsletter, postings through the school building, or an email to a school principal or other staff.
“We are running makerspaces, book clubs, inviting interesting and intriguing guests with a plethora of skill sets into our spaces, exposing students to so much more than just literature,” Esad writes in the report. “While also fostering a love of reading, we are curating a space for students to explore the world, and very few people outside of our students know about this. That needs to change.”
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