Those of us who worked in the Omaha Public Schools’ (OPS) library services department had a simple goal: prove our programs are vital. Getting there, though, didn’t seem so simple.
OPS is the largest district in Nebraska. Seven other school districts are in the greater metropolitan area; the rest of the state is predominantly rural. Even though the state population is 89 percent white, OPS has a 70 percent minority population, with 73 percent receiving free or reduced lunch. Nebraska state regulations require that each school building with at least 250 students have a certified librarian assigned on at least a half-time basis. We are fortunate in that OPS exceeds that mandate. Each school has a full-time librarian.
While we were confident our programs had a positive impact on student achievement, we had no district-specific information to support that belief, so we weren’t able to demonstrate any advantage to additional library resources. Most school library studies are done at a state level, not easily replicated at a district level. We realized if we were ever going to get the supporting data we needed, we had to embark on a district-specific research study.
The starting point: DATA ACCESS
In the fall of 2013, we approached our district’s research department to enlist their assistance in conducting a sweeping program evaluation of our department. With limited staff, the research department is selective about what gets approved. Our request, although worthwhile, was denied, since it wasn’t directly connected to accountability, the research department’s priority.
We attempted to gather information on our own, but without access to the district data, we were stuck. We needed demographics and free and reduced lunch data. But at this point, our research questions were fuzzy. In deference to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, school personnel err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing confidential student information. We were not able to clearly articulate our need for the information, so, understandably, we didn’t get it.
brainstorming research questions
Determined, we pushed forward by focusing on the data we did have. Working with Christopher Simpson, reports writer at The Library Corporation (TLC), our Integrated Library System (ILS) vendor, we verified and examined circulation, fines (waived and collected), and loan history data. Since all ILS companies have reporting software, this option is likely available to any district, though the process would depend on the individual ILS vendor. We weren’t charged for this service, as it was considered an extension of customer service.
Using that data, Chris helped us brainstorm specific research questions that would justify our request for the confidential, district-wide student information. Once we pinpointed those, the other district departments recognized the validity of our research study and were willing to share the information we needed. Those questions were:
- Does increased library use impact grades and/or test scores?
- Is there a relationship between library use and graduation rates?
- Does library use differ in buildings with a para-professional assigned to the library, in addition to the librarian?
- Do these trends differ based on a school library’s collection, or students’ grade level, FRL status, English language learner status, migrant status, race/ethnicity, special education and/or individualized education plan status?
- What factors contribute to higher rates of lost books?
the big picture takes shape
In the fall of 2014, our research department allowed us to merge confidential student data with our vendor data for a statistical analysis. Fortuitously, the district’s latest strategic plan had just been released. This was an ideal opportunity to align our research with one of the newly unveiled goals: to provide equitable, efficient systems and resources across the district. We would show how our program fits in to the big picture of equitable access.
Our research department helped us determine what information would be most useful in answering our questions. Knowing that it is much easier to narrow down information than to start over, they suggested we cast a wide net to pull in any factors that might prove significant. We discovered there is an almost overwhelming amount of data available, and to determine what is relevant and valid takes patience. We hit some dead ends. For example, in one year, state test results were declared invalid for a particular grade level. Finally, after regrouping several times, we narrowed our focus to four years’ worth of the following data:
- Nebraska State reading test
- Nebraska State writing test
- School-level graduation rates
- School-level FRL rates
- School-level migrant status
- School-level race/ethnicity
- School-level mobility rate
When submitting this data pull from our vendor to our research department at the end of the 2015 school year, our task was made easier, because the same student identification number is used by both. (No personally identifiable details were shared with us.)
the action plan
The results of our research led us to these findings:
- Increased library use ties into a statistically significant increase in Nebraska reading/writing scores
- We were surprised to see no relationship between library use and graduation rates. We are continuing research on this point.
- Library use is lower without a paraprofessional. Less than half of our elementary libraries have a paraprofessional assigned, and those that do have higher checkout rates than those that don’t. Of those school librarians without paraprofessional support, 60 percent reported limited checkout as a result.
- Higher mobility—the more frequently a child changed residences—leads to lowers library use.
- We saw a strong correlation between lost items and FRL status, minority, and special education students.
Like the majority of library research, ours is correlational. Correlational research shows impact, but not direct impact. I can’t say, for instance, that checking out books is the sole reason that students do well on state tests. But I can show that it’s part of the student achievement picture. In this age of accountability, correlational research doesn’t carry as much weight as causational (if you do A, B happens) research. That said, we were encouraged by our results. They reflected the need for the change that we were advocating for at district meetings. We had a baseline and, indeed, we found evidence that our school library programs were valuable and effective.
Looking down the road
With all this in mind, we hope to move the needle in the following areas:
Budgets: Current library materials budgets are based on the number of students per school. In an average year, our total checkout is 1.8 million, of which 1.5 million are by elementary students. We understand elementary students have more opportunities to check out materials because they visit the library on a fixed schedule, and that they are more likely to check out a larger number of books. However, we also know the checkout rate drops each year after third grade. Based on our research results, we believe our budgets should be increased beginning with elementary students to provide more opportunities for free reading choice. Our recommendation is to tie budgets to (1) rate of check out, (2) number of students, and, (3) a weighting factor for poverty. With a limited budget, school librarians must balance curriculum needs with pleasure reading choices. Our hope is by further supporting elementary libraries, we can stem the decrease in library use as students progress through school.
Staffing: Paraprofessional support provides school librarians with a much greater opportunity to build relationships with even the most reluctant readers. To ensure equal opportunity for all students, our research supports the need to assign a paraprofessional to every elementary library.
Fines: Our current practice penalizes our most vulnerable populations by creating access barriers. We found the majority of school librarians limit checkout based on overdue or lost materials. While we recognize the reasoning behind this is based on budgets, we also know access to materials is critical for not only student achievement, but lifelong literacy. We plan to explore eliminating library fines.
Our research study provides a framework to move our program forward. It has answered our basic questions. Do we impact student achievement? Yes. Do we provide sufficient staffing? Most of the time, but not always. Do our practices match our intent? Not necessarily. This has allowed us to critically examine what we are doing and, in the end, better serve our students. We now have a hard-data baseline to share with all our stakeholders to show how we impact equity and achievement. Our goal is to replicate the research every four years.
Stacy Lickteig is the project coordinator, library service, for Omaha (NE) Public Schools.
Jo O’Garro is an elementary school librarian in Omaha (NE) Public Schools.
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