School Libraries

What am I missing?

Recently there was a report that proved that having a certified teacher-librarian in a school leads to higher student achievement.  Of course this was met with much elation and excitement: look!  we do matter!!

Leaving the question of title and certification (I am not state certified, nor do I call myself a teacher-librarian) aside, I feel like this study – and many of its predecessors – are missing something.  Something like context, or the bigger picture.  Here’s what I don’t see when looking at the survey:

  • what’s the student/teacher ratio?
  • what’s the annual expenditure per student overall, not just in the library?
  • does the library provide access to state purchased databases?
  • what’s the average income level in the school?
  • how many students get free or reduced meals?
  • how involved are the parents in the life of the school?
  • what is the attendance rate?

Here’s one example: my nephew works in an inner city middle school where many students are eligible for free meals.  Despite this, he frequently (ok, daily) brings in fruit and a few candy bars because there are students who are literally crying from hunger after having no food at home for dinner, and then not making it to school in time for breakfast.  Guess what? That school has a state certified librarian in its library.

One of my library friends said this about the study:

What a weird mish-mash of data that is. And can we talk about the fact that so many schools didn’t respond to the survey? And this paragraph, which is exactly the opposite of the basis of so many federal reform efforts, “Overall, smaller schools tend to lag behind larger schools in academic achievement, as do schools located in more rural areas with higher rates of poverty.”

I guess this is the “money” graph, but still, this is sort of sketchy. I agree that there are many factors that we aren’t getting at here, including ” controlling for school size and student income level” which I don’t see anywhere in Appendix C. 

The fact is that there are many factors, that schools where there are smaller classes, teachers who spend extra time with students who are struggling, budgets that support a strong library collection (print and digital), parental involvement, high attendance rates, higher overall income bases providing good salaries and faculty retention have higher student achievement than those that have large, overfilled classes and schools, with old, outdated equipment and supplies, with teachers who just. don’t. care.  As much as I might want to believe that it’s all about the librarian (or teacher-librarian, or media specialist, or whatever the title), I just can’t.

So here’s the challenge we face: there are many studies out there, all saying it’s about us and our presence, our program, in a school.  Can these studies be replicated (I know of a few that cannot be)?  Do they hold up to outside scrutiny?  And if not, why aren’t we demanding better studies?  Why are we staking our professional reputations and advocacy programs on questionable data?


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