December 12, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Irrefutable Evidence: How to prove you boost student achievement

Di Wilson is on a mission. She’s spent the last 15 years hoarding evidence—the kind of information that proves her relevance to student learning. Wilson understands that colleagues at her K–12 girls school want proof that she’s valuable, and she’s more than willing to comply. She already has a portfolio stuffed with papers, everything from students’ test scores to surveys to checklists, anything that will chart her vital role as a school librarian.

Wilson knows that evidence-based practice—the process of carefully documenting how school librarians make a difference in learning—is key to being recognized. A big part of her work is devoted to creating assignments that tie the library to the classroom curriculum. Whenever there’s good news to report, Wilson brings it to the attention of her teaching colleagues and parents. Her most recent success story includes a two-year project exploring plagiarism in her school in Melbourne, Australia. Wilson surveyed students and colleagues and discovered that the main culprit was a lack of clear instruction on note-taking skills, particularly in grades seven through nine. That prompted her to create lessons on correct citation and note-taking styles, and they were eventually adopted by the school’s teachers.

“I keep very busy working with teachers from a wide range of subjects, both revising [lessons] we have done in the past and creating new ones,” Wilson says. “If school librarians can lead by example, by using the skills and resources at their finger tips to explore curriculum [connections], then I think they gain the respect of the teaching staff.” School-wide respect, coupled with her collaborative programs, has made it far easier for Wilson to secure a decent budget.

Most educators don’t recognize a direct link between the daily activities of school librarians and improved student achievement, despite several important statewide studies by Colorado University’s Keith Curry Lance linking ample school library services with increased student success on standardized test scores (see “Dick and Jane Go to the Head of the Class ,” April 2000, pp.44–47). Why? Because the evidence isn’t directly linked to local student success and isn’t readily documented or available. To gain the support of your administrators, principals, teachers, and parents, show them your impact on student learning. They want to know how their students benefit from their own school library services. Move away from advocating the value of school libraries and start documenting tangible outcomes. Taking concrete action will help you gain the respect you deserve and eventually play a huge role in budgetary decisions that affect your media center.

What is evidence-based practice and how can it work for you? First coined by the medical profession in the early 1990s, evidence-based practice can now be applied to what you do to show how and why your services are important to student learning. Start by familiarizing yourself with existing research on how school libraries can optimize learning. Then make sure you systematically focus on gathering meaningful evidence on the impact of your instructional role on student achievement.

Incorporating evidence-based practice doesn’t require extraordinary investigative skills. All that’s needed are simple strategies to help gather proof that your library lessons help students become better learners. When I was a school librarian, I’d administer quick exercises at the end of each information literacy lesson, asking students to jot down the three most important things they learned, how my lesson improved the way they previously conducted research, and how I could further help them. The answers I received provided clear insights into the impact of my lessons and ways I could continue helping students. In short, the questionnaires helped justify my work and gave me ideas for future information literacy lessons. Proving your worth can be that simple.

Some school librarians say that proving their worth detracts from completing their day-to-day work. But if school librarians are already engaged in collaborative teaching efforts, why not simply document their impact on student achievement? If student learning is our most important objective, then evidence-based practice is not about proving our worth, it’s about demonstrating the vitality of our contributions to learning.

Start engaging in evidence-based practice by teaching students the fundamentals of inquiry-based research, which lays the foundation for your documentation. School libraries aren’t just repositories of information—a certified media specialist needs to provide quality instruction. Like any good investigator, start by gathering the most essential evidence—how information literacy teaches kids to develop critical-thinking skills. Inquiry-based research trains kids to think beyond prescribed answers to come up with analytical answers to questions. “It takes students out of the predigested format of the textbook and rote memorization into the process of learning from a variety of sources to construct their own understandings,” says Carol Kuhlthau, professor of library and information science at Rutgers University and the author of Teaching the Library Research Process: A Step-by-Step Program for Secondary School Students (Center for Applied Research, 1985). Kuhlthau recommends giving assignments that avoid simple yes or no answers. Get kids to examine their existing knowledge and determine what additional information they need to learn. And get them to explore inconsistencies in their current knowledge and expectations and to formulate questions that will help them develop their own theses. These student appraisals will guide classroom teachers and librarians in the planning, implementation, and assessment of future assignments.

If you overlook this critical stage of information-literacy instruction, students will fail to gain ownership of their research and never learn the correct way to evaluate or locate quality information. An evidence-based approach provides a rich opportunity for school librarians to ensure that their lessons make a real contribution to student learning.

There’s no standard approach to getting started with evidence-based practice, and strategies will vary from school to school depending on the learning goals of individual districts. But media specialists must develop paper trails to prove their worth. This documentation can include samples of students’ work, lesson plans, surveys, and test scores, anything that will help justify your job. While planning your lessons, focus on the need to explicitly identify what you are teaching and how to prove you were successful. A good starting point is to focus on any collaborative lessons with your colleagues. When teachers and school librarians work together, principals and the school board see firsthand evidence of your value. And when teachers see that you make a difference in student learning, they become your biggest advocates.

School librarian Sue Healey at Tintern Grammar School in Australia, for example, recently devised a collaborative lesson with a history teacher to help kids develop more effective Internet search strategies. Healey created a checklist asking students to describe their search techniques for the assignment. Then she showed them all the flaws in their techniques and gave them a lesson in how to properly uncover primary documents and other quality resources. When the librarian surveyed students on how the lesson helped them prepare better research papers, she was able to demonstrate that her lesson improved the quality of students’ projects. Charting what students have learned—the instructional outcomes—is a critical component of evidence-based practice. You must make clear statements based on concrete evidence that your students have benefited from your lessons. To help you do so, refer to the following information literacy strategies offered in Information Power (ALA Editions, 1998):

  • Simple checklist strategies:Check students’ levels of information literacy skills, technical skills, knowledge, and attitudes before and after the library instruction.
  • Rubric strategies: Evaluate students based on a set of criteria that clearly defines the impact of your lessons.
  • Conferencing strategies: Devise activities where students can reflect on their work, their skills, and the benefits of the library instruction.
  • Journaling strategies: Document your instruction and the outcome of your instruction.
  • Portfolio strategies : Gather samples of students’ work over a period of time and match them to your school’s curriculum goals and information-literacy requirements.

These strategies ensure that information literacy is embedded into your lessons and will help you identify how the library has made a difference in student learning.

About 50 ninth graders at the K–12 Gill St. Bernard’s School in Gladstone, NJ, helped media specialist Randi Schmidt prove that point. The students were involved in a four-week research project to improve their print and online research skills. After Schmidt taught them how to ask the right questions, analyze and synthesize available resources, and develop well-thought-out theses, students were asked to write a one-page report on how the librarian’s instruction helped them create a more comprehensive final project. The responses were full of rich detail about how information-literacy instruction helped them write better papers. One student said the lesson helped him weed out bad information, while another said she could better formulate her own views. Other students said the lessons helped them become independent researchers and taught them to stay focused on the questions being asked. These comments, taken directly from students’ own voices, provide clear-cut evidence that information-literacy instruction was put to good use.

It’s important to understand that evidence-based practice takes assessment to a higher level. By developing information-literacy lessons and detailing the explicit lessons learned, the contributions of the school library move beyond observation to powerful evidence about its central role in the school. It proves that students actually benefit from the librarian’s daily activities. Over time, the multidimensional role you play will become clear to your teaching colleagues.

How do we know evidence-based practice actually works? We’ve already seen significant results. Kuhlthau and I are currently undertaking a survey of 10,000 K–12 students in Ohio to determine how school libraries there have explicitly helped students learn. This project, funded by the Ohio Educational Library Media Association, will move beyond test scores to examine the qualitative and quantitative ways school librarians help kids find quality resources and use that information to produce exemplary research projects. Our overall goal is to determine how media specialists help students with everything from technology to independent thinking and research to reading skills. The results of our findings, expected this fall, will present a clear picture about how effective school libraries improve students’ skills.

Evidence-based practice certainly requires effort, but the skills needed to engage in this practice stem directly from the information-literacy processes that we preach. What’s important is that the gathered evidence highlights how the librarian plays a crucial role in boosting student achievement, in shaping important attitudes and values, in contributing to the development of self-esteem, and in creating a more effective learning environment.


Author Information
Ross J. Todd is director of the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries at Rutgers University.

How to Get Started…

  • Teach students the fundamentals of inquiry-based research. This lays the foundation for your documentation.
  • While planning your lesson, explicitly focus on identifying what you are teaching and how to prove you were successful. Start by focusing on any collaborative lessons with teachers.
  • Develop a paper trail. This can include samples of students’ work, lesson plans, surveys, test scores, and checklists.
  • Chart what students have learned. Information Power offers a helpful checklist of strategies (visit www.ala.org/aasl/ip_nine.html).
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