If school librarians can’t prove they make a difference, they may cease to exist
Every fall, School Library Journal hosts a national Leadership Summit that brings together a mix of school librarians, administrators, other educators, researchers, and university professors, as well as policy makers and elected officials. While the topics change, the Summit always focuses on an issue of critical importance to school librarians. Our goal? To jump-start the conversation and create a ripple effect throughout the profession.
The 2007 Leadership Summit, “Where’s the Evidence? Understanding the Impact of School Libraries,” dove head first into evidence-based practice (EBP). (To learn more about last year’s Summit see “Peak Experience,” p. 41.) Evidence-based school librarianship, according to Ross Todd, director of Rutgers University’s Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL), “is an approach that systematically engages research-derived evidence, school librarian-observed evidence, and user-reported evidence in the ongoing processes of decision making, development, and continuous improvement to achieve the school’s mission and goals. These goals typically center on student achievement and quality teaching and learning.”
Much of what follows draws upon the Summit’s closing session, which Todd led. Here the 200 participants worked at small tables, capturing ideas on paper which they then shared with the larger group. They defined core beliefs about evidence-based practice, identified the challenges ahead, and determined the key actions that needed to be taken—Brian Kenney
Evidence-based practice in school libraries hasn’t emerged out of nowhere. In fact, it’s centered on several beliefs, which most school librarians already share.
- The fusion of learning, information, and technology presents dynamic challenges for teachers, school librarians, administrators, and students in 21st-century schools. Providing the best opportunities for children to learn and achieve in today’s educational environment, and knowing that they’ve done well, is at the heart of quality teaching and learning, and is the driving force behind evidence-based practice.
- School libraries as schools’ information and knowledge centers are essential for addressing curriculum standards, the complexities of learning, and quality teaching in information-intensive 21st-century schools.
- School librarianship derives its mandate from a diverse body of theoretical and empirical knowledge, and active engagement with this knowledge is what enables the profession to continuously transform and improve. Leading this transformation is the professional expertise of certified school librarians who possess expertise, insights, and skills based on the knowledge that they apply in practice.
- All students can learn through engagement with school libraries. School libraries play a transformative role in the lives of students—not only by helping them develop intellectually, as measured by standardized test scores—but by encouraging students’ intellectual, social, and cultural development.
- The transformation of information into knowledge, and the development of attitudes, values, and beliefs are enabled through carefully designed instructional interventions and reading literacy programs that guide and engage students.
- The value of a school library can be measured. Learning outcomes, as well as personal, social, and cultural growth, can be documented.
- Evidence of the school library’s crucial role in student achievement is not fully understood, nor seen, nor acknowledged by many stakeholders.
- Accountability is an essential component of sustainable development of the school library profession. Accountability, as a blueprint for professional integrity and significant outcome, is a commitment to growth through examining progress and practices. It brings alignment, innovation, collaboration, introspection, and effectiveness.
- Sustainable development through accountability requires a move from rhetoric to evidence, from a “tell me” framework to a “show me” framework, and from a process framework to an outcomes framework.
- If we do not show value, we will not have a future. Evidence-based practice is not about the survival of school librarians, it’s about the survival of our students. This is the social justice and ethical imperative for evidence-based practice.
Multiple types of evidence
Evidence-based practice recognizes multiple sources, types of evidence, and ways of gathering evidence. The use of multiple sources facilitates triangulation—an approach to data analysis that synthesizes data from multiple sources. By using and comparing data from a number of sources, you can develop stronger claims about your practice’s impact and outcomes.
Different sources and types of evidence might include student interviews or portfolios, reflection and process journals, formative and summative assessment tasks, standards-based scoring guides and rubrics, surveys of students and teachers, pretest and post test measures, student-generated products, statewide assessments, skills measurements, ongoing performance-based assessments, general student data, and systematically recorded observations.
What is EBP for school librarians?
Evidence-based school librarianship uses research-derived evidence to shape and direct what we do. EBP combines professional wisdom, reflective experience, and understanding of students’ needs with the judicious use of research-derived evidence to make decisions about how the school library can best meet the instructional goals of the school.
In order to accomplish this, school libraries need to systematically collect evidence that shows how their practices impact student achievement; the development of deep knowledge and understanding; and the competencies and skills for thinking, living, and working.
This holistic approach to evidence-based practice in school libraries involves three dimensions: evidence for practice, evidence in practice, and evidence of practice.
Evidence for practice focuses on examining and using empirical research to form practices and inform actions, and to identify best practices. This is the informational dimension of school library practice.
Evidence in practice focuses on integrating the available research evidence with the deep knowledge and understanding derived from professional experience, as well as using local evidence to identify learning dilemmas and needs, and achievement gaps. This kind of reflective practice enables us to make informed decisions about how the school library can bring about optimal learning outcomes and actively contribute to fulfilling the school’s mission and goals. This is the transformational dimension of school library practice.
Evidence of practice is derived from systematically measured, student-based data. It’s about the real results of what school librarians actually do. Evidence of practice focuses on measured outcomes and impacts, going beyond process and activities as outputs. It establishes what has changed for learners as a result of inputs, interventions, activities, and processes.
None of these dimensions are linear or static. Taken together, they are a dynamic, ongoing, and integrative process that informs practice, generates new practices, and demonstrates a practice’s impact on learning outcomes.
The central questions
Evidence-based practice in school librarianship is driven by central questions that give school libraries their raison d’être. For school librarians, the big question regarding EBP is, “Why do school libraries matter today, particularly in the context of an educational world that increasingly relies on diverse, complex, and often conflicting sources of digital information?”
The answer to this question lies in student outcomes—specifically, what school librarians can do in their instructional practices to ensure those outcomes. This, in turn, raises some interesting questions:
- How do school libraries impact student learning? How do they help students learn?
- Do students who have been taught information skills perform better academically?
- How do we ensure that our school libraries are sustainable and accountable—in infrastructure, personnel, resources, and instructional processes—so that optimal student outcomes are achieved?
- How do we spread the word about the impact of school libraries on student achievement and demonstrate their educational, social, and cultural value?
Evidence-based practice emphasizes the actual work of the school librarian, including the creation of local initiatives that document and demonstrate the individual school library’s impact on learning outcomes. Accordingly, EBP generates local versions of the above questions. For example, how does my school library impact student learning? How does my school library help students learn?
An emphasis on outcomes
By emphasizing outcomes, EBP shifts the focus from articulating what school librarians do to what students achieve. Accordingly, EBP validates that quality learning outcomes can be achieved through the school library and that the school librarian is an important instructional partner.
While some see EBP as a theory of practice, fundamentally it’s not about theory. Rather, it is an approach to best practice. Evidence-based practice is action-oriented. It goes beyond an awareness of statewide studies and the evidence they provide about school libraries—and the assumption that sharing the results of a study is enough to ensure quality school libraries for all. It asks school librarians to take action, to engage in local initiatives, rather than simply keeping track of the number of books that are checked out.
This is not to disparage what has traditionally been at the center of school library practice, such as the number of classes in the library, the number of items borrowed, and the number of items purchased annually. However, these are evidence of inputs and processes, rather than evidences of outcomes. They do play a role in making decisions that will lead to optimum outcomes, and should not be overlooked. But they are not the centerpiece of evidence-based practice.
Evidence-based practice means a shift in focus from information inputs to knowledge and skills outputs, such as mastery of curriculum content, critical thinking and knowledge-building competencies, mastery of complex technical skills for accessing and evaluating information, and using information to construct deep knowledge. EBP also includes outcomes that are related to reading comprehension and enrichment, as well as to the attitudes and values associated with information use and learning.
Outcomes and national standards
The recently released American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) “Standards for the 21st Century Learner” emphasizes learning outcomes, underpinned by reading as interpretation and the development of new knowledge by students. These standards explicitly identify outcomes, using descriptions such as “inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge” “draw conclusions, make informed decisions”; “apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge”; “share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society”; and “pursue personal and aesthetic growth.”
The standards clearly provide a framework for the evidence that should be generated. They provide a structure for making evidence-based claims about the school library’s contribution to learning, and give focus to specific evidence-collecting strategies. These strategies can lead to many claims such as:
- Students’ final products showed improved ability to analyze and synthesize information.
- Students’ research reports showed improved ability to draw conclusions and state implications of their findings.
- Students’ presentations showed ability to present different viewpoints and a strong case for their own positions.
- Eighty-three percent of the class show improved ability in thoughtfully analyzing and evaluating major alternative points of view.
- Following instructional interventions that focused on establishing the quality of Web sites, 100 percent of the students’ bibliographies showed use of high-quality sites.
- The analysis of the final bibliographies submitted by the students compared to their initial research plans showed a change from generalist background information to specialist, detailed, information sources.
Such examples of knowledge-based outcomes, particularly expressed in the language of curriculum standards, are far more meaningful than library outcomes that track, for example, the number of users or the size of collections.
Key challenges of EBP
The following questions—and even some answers—emerged at the last Summit.
How do we make research-based evidence more accessible and applicable—so it can be integrated into practice? Often research is reported in the context of sophisticated methodological and statistical procedures. This is important to the quality of the research, but it can make some studies tough to understand. Research needs to be repackaged to make it more accessible and to establish its practical utility and applicability.
How do we build a stronger community of participatory research? This involves both knowing what educational research is occurring and having the opportunity to actively participate in it. There’s a sense that research is not consulted because it doesn’t address the real-world concerns of practicing librarians.
How do we share and accumulate locally generated evidence? We need structures and processes for storing data, as well as good examples that showcase the outcomes. For example, what might a portfolio of locally generated evidence look like? How can this evidence be accumulated across individual schools and districts, and be shared and built upon?
How do we deal with negative evidence arising out of research? What happens if research—at a local, state, or national level—shows that school librarians are not making a difference?
How do we build a widespread commitment to evidence-based practice within the profession? And how do we address school librarians who fear being accountable for learning outcomes or who don’t see the value or necessity of EBP? Resistance from colleagues, or branding such advances as passing fads, is not unique to our profession.
How do we provide professional training in EBP? For starters, by making the training developed in the Delaware and Ohio studies more widely available.
How do we address the perception that most librarians don’t have enough time for EBP? Time is consistently presented as the key barrier to implementing evidence-based practice, and there’s also the perception that more support staff are needed to undertake this “additional” work. But EBP is not about scrambling to find additional time. It’s about establishing priorities and making choices based on your beliefs about the importance of school libraries and learning.
How do we persuade school administrators that EBP is a key component of the work of school librarians and garner their support? Some school administrators may resist EBP because the library is not perceived as a classroom and the school librarian not perceived as a teacher.
Does a school librarian need the authority of school administrators to engage in evidence-based practices? A profession without reflective practitioners who are willing to learn about relevant research is a blinkered profession—one that’s disconnected from best practices and best thinking, and one which, by default, often resorts to advocacy rather than evidence to survive.
A lot of ground was covered at SLJ’s Summit—from understanding how EBP exists in other disciplines to exploring how it can be used in ours. But as was made clear in the closing session, there is plenty left to do before EBP can become integral to school librarianship. And this responsibility lies with all of us. To help us succeed, the participants created a “To-Do List” (opposite page)—for everyone from building-level librarians to university researchers.
It’s time to get working!
|Ross Todd is associate professor, Rutgers University, where he directs the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries.|
Greg Worrell, president of the Scholastic Classroom and Library Group, got SLJ’s 2007 Leadership Summit underway by reminding the audience of a tough reality: many school administrators aren’t aware of the impact of school libraries—which is why the need for evidence and evidence-based practice (EBP) is so critical.
Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), a longtime supporter of libraries, stopped by to update the audience on the status of HR 2864, the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries (SKILLs) Act, and other federal legislation affecting libraries. Sara Kelly Johns, president of the American Association of School Librarians, spoke about the group’s recently released “Standards for the 21st Century Learner.”
Linda Perlstein, journalist and author of Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade (Holt, 2007), delivered the keynote address. Speaking from personal experience, Perlstein talked about both the costs and benefits of the standards-based testing movement.
A panel discussion, “Evidence across the Professions,” put EBP into a larger perspective. Moderated by Carol Gordon, from Rutgers’ Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries, the panel featured an architect, a nursing educator, a health sciences librarian, and an academic librarian. The panelists shared the history and status of evidence-based practice in their disciplines and discussed the benefits it held for users.
Most of the Summit was spent investigating EBP through case studies. A group from the Delaware Department of Education discussed its state’s evidence-based library initiatives, which are largely tied to school-based improvement planning processes. Attendees also heard how action research improved Londonderry (NH) School District’s media program and created better connections between its school librarians and classroom teachers.
Other case studies focused on using data derived from standardized assessments to improve library instruction, collections, and collaboration; how reading research can inform the design of a summer reading program; the evidence principals use to evaluate school librarians; how school librarians can tie together reading level scores, circulation statistics, and information literacy instruction to improve student achievement; and the statewide training in EBP that’s going on in Ohio.
Summits aren’t free, and without the generous support of our corporate partners we could never provide these opportunities. The 2007 Summit, held November 30 to December 1, in Phoenix, was sponsored by Scholastic Library Publishing, as well as Gareth Stevens Publishing; Capstone Press, Compass Point Books, Picture Window Books, and Stone Arch Books; Follett Library Resources; Rosen Publishing; World Almanac Education; Thomson Gale; and Follett Software Company. Our sponsors do much more than just pay the bills; they are active participants throughout the process—from the advanced planning to the event itself.
Visit www.slj.com for more on the Summit, including video excerpts of many of the talks and presentations.—Brian Kenney
At the heart of evidence-based practice (EBP) is the day-by-day actions of school librarians, and participants identified a wide range of suggestions and strategies.
Shift from an advocacy strategy. Make certain that mission statements are articulated from a learning-outcomes viewpoint, that means “students will…” rather than “the school library will….” Ensure that goals and initiatives are built on a research framework and based on research evidence and document learners’ needs and EBP strategies to address them.
Just do it. Step outside your comfort zone and deal with any insecurity about your impact. An outcomes-driven practice may need to adjust its management and support staff. EBP is neither easy nor simple, but taking small steps is essential in overcoming the false perception that EBP is time-consuming and complicated. Develop an EBP plan that makes you part of your school’s solutions.
Share outcomes rather than seek permission to engage in EBP. Your mandate for practice is derived from the profession and not based on the limited perceptions of others. Be patient in overcoming resistance to changes in your professional role, and remember: presenting clear evidence that you’re contributing to your school’s learning goals is much more convincing than merely advocating for the opportunity.
Establish evidence-based mentorships and partnerships: identify some leading lights and learn together.
Gain access to data. You’ll probably be able to get your hands on test scores and other kinds of achievement data, which can be broken down to isolate specific gaps in student learning. Develop interventions aligned to the school library’s role, such as actions that build better reading comprehension or critical thinking. “Standards for the 21st Century Learner” provides a framework for spotting gaps in local data and identifying where the school librarian can close those gaps.
Get involved with your school improvement process. Improvement plans are a natural avenue for developing EBP. Typically they are data driven, with data required to establish the need, interventions, and to measure change. Explain how the school library can contribute to the plan.
Build a research orientation into your practice. Produce a weekly summary of some key research. Share locally generated evidence at faculty forums or in newsletters.
Work within your school’s data-driven structures. It’s likely that teachers are already using school data or involved in school improvement planning. Join them. Drill down into the data to find the gaps and where library interventions can help.
Make advocacy evidence-based. Make sure every advocacy initiative is explicitly tied to research and provides national, district, and school-based evidence. Advocacy without evidence is just self-interested opinion.
Construct an evidence-based portfolio. Compile data from diverse sources, including library-based data; instructional processes, exemplars, and assessment data; statements of outcomes; and examples of high-quality learning. Use it when negotiating for continuous improvement or defending against proposed cutbacks.
Identify your professional development needs in relation to evidence-based practice. Get training and learn to apply EBP approaches.
Researchers and educators
The ongoing relationship among research, professional practice, and local action is an essential dimension of evidence-based practice. This has implications for the writing and dissemination of research and the ongoing training of school librarians. Researchers and educators need to:
Emphasize the importance of research methods in the preservice preparation of school librarians, as well as training in evidence-based practice approaches.
Compile and disseminate research-based strategies that impact the needs of specific groups of students and create clearly defined outcomes. These include interventions for reading comprehension, critical thinking, knowledge construction, and fostering conceptual change.
Develop a database of collection and analysis tools tied to the American Association of School Librarians’ new learning standards. This may involve building practice models for school librarians to gather data and assess outcomes tied to the standards.
Develop an evidence-based practice database that enables school librarians to add to their EBP portfolios, and to manage and share the evidence they collect.
Improve the accessibility and readability of research. Many articles published in peer-reviewed journals aren’t written in plain English—that’s why they’re often seen as too esoteric and too removed from the trenches. Research results need to be expressed in easy-to-understand words. As one participant said, “Make research sexy!”
Speak with practitioners to understand their needs and how these might translate into a research agenda.
Provide leadership in the sustained professional development of evidence-based practice.
Participants at the Summit valued leadership—from the local to the international—and believed leadership is important in building a platform for EBP. They suggested multiple actions for associations.
Build a stronger research strand at conferences. This includes practitioner-led research round tables at state, national, and international conferences; making an explicit research track at conferences; and reviewing research as a criteria for presentations.
Establish blogs or wikis for sharing and discussing research. This is an easy way to showcase strategies from individual schools; allow researchers, educators, and practitioners to interact; and provide ongoing feedback.
Establish a task force on EBP. A task force can build a strong commitment to EBP across the profession and ensure that evidence plays a central role in an association’s policies and processes.
Document and spread EBP exemplars. Perhaps we need an evidence-based practice clearinghouse for practitioners to post action research and researchers to provide case studies?