School libraries seen as vital to student success

On Board Online • August 9, 2010

By Paul Heiser
Research Analyst

As a library media specialist at Watkins Glen High School, there’s never a typical day for Maggie Field Edgley. One moment she might be assisting an English senior thesis class with research and the next working with students on a Humanities project.

Her main goal is to teach both students and staff how to become critical thinkers in the research process. Also important is teaching students how to become discernable users of the Internet and information found there, as well as users of valuable print matter.

“The Internet and other digital technologies bring the world into our small town school,” she told On Board. “Teaching students how to discern the quality of that information and think critically is vital.”

It may even help students stay safe. According to a report from Harvard University, media literacy skills overlap with safety skills. Given the ease of Internet use, the Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative at Harvard’s Berkman Center recommends that students receive guidance and media literacy education on how to safely search, contextualize and share information on the Internet.

But amid budgetary pressures, school librarians are often seen as luxuries. An April 2010 survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that 10 percent of school librarian jobs were cut in 2009-10 nationwide, and 19 percent are expected to be cut in 2010-11.

New York seems to be resisting the trend so far. Data from the State Education Department (SED) estimates that the number of schools statewide with certified library media specialists increased from 3,270 in 2005-06 to 3,342 in 2009-10. However, some districts are scaling back their school librarians from full- to part-time or increasing job sharing, with one librarian for more than one school within a district.

“Some districts or administrators, trying to uncover every cost-saving stone, look critically at their library programs,” John Brock, an associate in School Library Services at SED, told On Board. “We strive to persuade them that cutting this program is not beneficial to student achievement.”

[Editor’s note: Brock is scheduled to present at NYSSBA’s October Convention in New York City on what school board members need to know about SED’s recently revised School Library Media Program Evaluation rubric.]

In fact, in April 2010 Anne Schiano, the now-retired assistant director of SED’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Instructional Technology, sent a letter to all school board members and school district administrators across the state – upon request of individuals in districts where school library positions were threatened to be cut – urging them to consider the importance of school libraries when making educational budget choices.

Regulations of the commissioner of education state that each school must have a library to meet the needs of students and complement the instructional programs in the curriculum. Public school districts in the state are also required to have certified school librarians at the secondary level (grades 7-12) in each school. School librarians are certified teachers in New York.

Certified school library media specialists are currently not mandated at the elementary level in New York State. In some school districts, these positions are filled by library aides. 

What the research says

Brock said there is a substantial body of current, compelling research that clearly shows strong school library programs staffed with certified librarians have a significant impact on student achievement without regard to socio-economics, teacher experience level, or other common correlations to student performance. In fact, according to SED, 20 state studies conducted in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010 demonstrate a positive and significant correlation between the school libraries staffed by certified school librarians and student test scores – even for elementary level students

A study by researchers at Syracuse University’s Center for Digital Literacy found that New York State schools with certified librarians had significantly higher scores on average – with an almost 10-point difference – on the fourth-grade English Language Arts test than those who did not.

   Ruth Small, the study’s primary author, said the findings are important not just because of the higher ELA test scores, but because certified librarians are also more likely to provide students with materials that present more diverse points of view and better support the curriculum than non-certified librarians.

A 2008 study by the University College London stands on ear the common assumption that the “Google Generation,” – youngsters who were brought up in the Internet age – is the most web-literate. The study found they lack the critical and analytical skills necessary to assess information they find on the Internet. Why?

  • The speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority.
  • Young people have a poor understanding of their information needs and thus find it difficult to develop effective search strategies.
  • Young people exhibit a strong preference for expressing themselves in natural language rather than analyzing which key words might be more effective.

The study cites a “new divide,” with students who have access to certified librarians “taking the prize of better grades” while those without such access “fall behind.”

“Rather than the prevalence of the Internet and other digital technologies making secondary school librarians less relevant, the University College study, as well as other research and scholarly writing, indicate that the need for information literacy teaching is greater for the ‘Google Generation’ than for their card-catalog bound predecessors,” Brock said. 

Ever heard of SLS?

Another aspect of school libraries in New York are the state’s unique School Library Systems (SLS). This state-funded program creates and funds 41 regional consortia based in the Big 5 Cities and BOCES. The SLS program provides a formalized network for public and nonpublic school library media centers across the state. The system provides services to member libraries such as consulting, continuing education and professional development, and connections to other types of libraries and library systems across the state and beyond.

Stephanie Wilson, president of the School Library Systems Association of New York State and director of the school library system at Greater Southern Tier BOCES, said school libraries must be technologically up-to-date and knowledgeable of state standards.

“The School Library System enables improved services to users and empowers all school library media specialists to be instructional experts and leaders in their schools,” she told On Board.

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