The results from of a study released by the Washington Library Media Association (WMLA) join a growing body of evidence from other reports showing that that certified teacher librarians and library programs have a significant and measurable impact on student success.
According to the April 1 report, “The Washington State School Library Impact Study: Certified Teacher-Librarians, Library Quality and Student Achievement in Washington State Public Schools,” students who attend schools with certified teacher librarians (CTLs) and quality library facilities perform better on standardized tests and are far more likely to graduate. Facilities with CTLs had an 85 percent five-year graduation rate, vs. 79 percent for those without. The study drew results from 1,486 K−12 public schools across the state.
The impact of high-quality CTL instruction is further heightened among students in high-poverty schools: The five-year graduation rate is 78.8 percent in schools with CTLs and 43.2 percent at those without.
“The impact of well-staffed, better-stocked, and better-funded libraries cannot be explained away by poverty, race/ethnicity, or other school and community factors known to impact student success,” says Keith Curry Lance, a research consultant who has been involved with impact studies in 15 states. He consulted on the Washington study.
“School library programs are positive predictors of student success that poverty cannot suppress,” Lance says. “Some people think that poorer students are going to do poorly in school no matter what we do. The findings of these studies challenge that by showing that even poorer students do better in the presence of strong school library programs.”
The Washington study was written by Elizabeth Coker, a senior research scientist for the University of Washington-Tacoma, Center for Strong Schools, and developed from conversations with Craig Seasholes, WLMA president-elect, and other WMLA members. It received input from Debra E. Kachel, co-chair of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association, who edited a 2011 impact study, “How Pennsylvania School Libraries Pay Off: Investments in Student Achievement and Academic Standards.”
“Consistently, reading and writing scores are better for students who have a full-time certified librarian than those who don’t,” Kachel and Lance wrote in a 2013 SLJ article about the Pennsylvania study. “Students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, and have IEPs (i.e., students with disabilities) benefit proportionally more than students generally….Students who are poor, minority, and have IEPs, but who have full-time librarians, are twice as likely to have ‘Advanced’ writing scores as their counterparts without full-time librarians.”
Library Quality Scale
The Washington study takes this work a step further, incorporating analysis regarding the quality of library services. While 96.7 percent of the survey respondents reported having an on-site library facility, just having a library facility is not enough, according to the report. The library must have a high-quality program, determined by specific factors, and related instructional services in order to positively influence student achievement.
Achievement indicators (five-year graduation rate and reading and math test scores) were examined alongside the quality of the library facility and services offered by the school—via a mechanism called the Library Quality Scale (LQS), newly developed by Coker. The LQS score ranges from 0−35, based on data from nine questions that were sent out in a statewide poll. They include the hours a school library is open, the number of group or class visits to the library per week, inventory of books and informational databases available, and the number of computers available for direct instruction and use during library programs.
Schools with an LQS of 26 or upward tend to have higher indicators of student achievement. High-poverty schools have lower LQS and achievement indicator scores than wealthier schools.
“[Coker developing] the LQS is going to be a great contribution for other states that want to do similar studies,” says WLMA president Sharyn Merrigan. School libraries staffed by CTLs scored significantly higher on the LQS than schools without CTLs—24.9 vs. 18.5, respectively.
While the LQS strongly correlates to student achievement within this particular study, Coker emphasizes it “only addresses facilities and resources” and does not include factors such as services provided by CTLs.
“To be replicated, it would need a lot of statistical work done to establish the reliability, weight the questions accordingly, etc.,” Coker says.
The opportunity gap: schools with or without CTLs
In high-poverty schools, facilities with a low LQS score have a 43.2 percent five-year high school graduation rate while those with high library quality have a 78.8 percent rate.
“Certified teacher librarians and library programs impact students regardless of rural or suburban and income,” said Merrigan. “Sometimes I hear about [schools] cutting library programs to keep the cuts far away from the classrooms. Obviously [doing so] isn’t keeping cuts away from the classrooms. And when we’re talking about kids who are already experiencing some deficits of resources, [funding a certified school librarian] is one pretty simple way to ensure that kids have equitable access to funds and resources.”
Schools with higher rates of poverty, unemployment, and incidents of child abuse or neglect are less likely to have CTLs on staff. The study shows. Among libraries with CTLs, 72 percent accommodate between 21 and 100-plus students per day, while only 55 percent of libraries without CTLs receive these visits.
Facilities with CTLs also have larger collections of print books (67 percent have 10,000 or more, compared to 44 percent without CTLs), higher total circulation, and more computers available for student use (61 percent have at least 11–20 available computers for student use; 37 percent of libraries staffed by non-CTL personnel have fewer than five). Those CTL-staffed libraries also teach online literacy skills at a markedly higher rate than those without, including using databases for online research (96 percent vs. 59).
In addition, 80 percent of CTLs responded that they were “very” or “somewhat” engaged in instruction related to the Common Core State Standards.
Takeaway: invest in libraries
While the insights on library quality add great depth to this impact study, the implication that CTLs matter to the achievement of the impoverished reinforces past findings, says Kachel. She notes that 23 states have published impact studies on school library programs and student achievement: “Statewide impact studies are all finding the same thing.”
The study began as a conversation between WMLA colleagues and took about three years to complete, says Seasholes, who cowrote an op-ed article about the project with Merrigan. Seasholes adds that the school library impact study builds a strong argument for funding certified teacher librarians, which should be a priority to improve student success, graduation rates, and information literacy and to close the opportunity gap.
The study was carried out with the help of the Washington Library Association and other agencies, including the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington State Institute of Public Policy, Washington Education Association, Quality Education Council, Washington State Board of Education, and many others.
“The takeaway for legislators is this,” says Lance. “If you’re looking for something to fund in public education for which there is consistent evidence of a positive association with student success—one that can’t be explained away by social and economic inequality—school library programs are just such an investment opportunity.”