Existing research shows that school libraries can have a positive impact, whether measured in terms of reading scores, literacy or learning more generally, on student achievement. There is evidence to show that:
- a strong library program that is adequately staffed, resourced and funded can lead to higher student achievement regardless of the socioeconomic or educational levels of the adults in the community;
- a strong computer network connecting the library's resources to the classroom and laboratories has an impact on student achievement;
- the quality of the collection has an impact on student learning;
- test scores are higher when there is higher usage of the school library;
- collaborative relationships between classroom teachers and school librarians have a significant impact on learning, particularly in relation to the planning of instructional units, resource collection development, and the provision of professional development for teachers;
- a print-rich environment leads to more reading, and free voluntary reading is the best predictor of comprehension, vocabulary growth, spelling and grammatical ability and writing style;
- the extent to which books are borrowed from school libraries shows a strong relationship with reading achievement whereas borrowing from classroom libraries does not;
- integrating information literacy into the curriculum can improve students' mastery of both content and information-seeking skills;
- a positive difference can be made to student achievement when school libraries cooperate with public libraries;
- libraries can make a positive difference to students' self-esteem, confidence, independence and sense of responsibility in regard to their own learning;
- the impact of school libraries appears strongest at primary and junior high school and weakest at the upper levels of secondary school, although more research is needed to show why this is the case at the senior level; and that
- there is insufficient research on subgroups of school library users (particularly students at risk), the nature of the contribution that school librarians make to student acquisition of information literacy skills, and the extent to which a school librarian's personal attributes and qualities contribute to student achievement.
Todd (2001b) outlines some of the key findings that establish a positive relationship between school libraries and student achievement. These include a shared educational philosophy centring on inquiry learning; the systematic development of students' information and critical literacy skills; the development of students' information competence via flexibly delivered classroom instruction; active reading programs that foster higher levels of reading comprehension, vocabulary development, and language skills; and successful school library programs that set clear expectations and gather systematic feedback from students and teachers.
Further research would be useful in relation to the impact of school library programs on information literacy skills acquisition; the impact of personal attributes, qualifications and roles of school librarians on student learning (Williams, Wavell and Coles 2001); the impact of school library interventions on particular groups of disadvantaged and at risk students, including NESB students and indigenous students; and the impact of school library interventions on students' confidence, motivation and self-esteem. It is important to know why the influence of school libraries on the learning of students in upper secondary school is apparently less than at the junior levels so that appropriate strategies could be adopted to maximise the school library contribution to the learning of these senior students. There is a need to investigate the kinds of qualitative methods that will enable the more intangible effects of school library programs on student learning to be measured, such as the kinds of indicators developed by Williams and Wavell (2001a) to measure student motivation. Given that the summary of evidence contained in reviews such as this is intended to foster greater recognition of the important role that school librarians can play in student learning, it would also be useful to have a better sense of national trends in school library staffing in Australia as well as any significant differences in roles, responsibilities, training, and working conditions among systems.
Throughout this literature review the underlying question has been: if research over the past five or six decades has consistently shown a positive relationship between student achievement and school libraries, then why does the 'case' for libraries still need to be put? Why do practitioners still need to convince decision-makers and administrators of the positive correlation between library services and student achievement?
Hartzell (1993) offers several reasons why the contribution of the school librarian to student achievement might not be widely recognised in schools. First, parents usually have minimal contact with teacher librarians on a day-to-day basis and so will most likely have little idea of what impact the school library has had on their child's learning; second, teachers tend to view librarians as support resources rather than as fellow teachers; third, it is difficult to assess the extent to which a school librarian has contributed ideas, resources and services to a successful project; and fourth, librarians tend to be rather isolated, finding it difficult to build relationships with other staff in the school. For these reasons a teacher or administrator is more likely to be given recognition for student achievement than a teacher librarian.
Action research in school libraries, then, is a crucial tool for raising the profile and prestige of library professionals. Todd (2001) is emphatic that school librarians will not be able to enhance their status until they recognise the need for evidence-based practice 'that is directed towards demonstrating the real tangible power of your contribution to the school's learning goals' (p. 11). It is not enough to be doing good things, he suggests; the question 'what difference did this make to student learning?' needs constantly to be asked. Evidence-based practice, Todd warns, 'is fundamental to future survival'.
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