School library programs improve student learning

Published June 2012 Voice

This article was written by Debra E. Kachel, a retired school librarian currently serving as the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ grant project director, and co-chairperson of the Legislation Committee of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

There’s no need to tell high school Principal Jonathan Bauer about the importance of his full-time, certified librarian, Sharon Nardelli.

“As the librarian, Sharon has her hand in all of the different departments, so she gets to see the broader perspective and can make that connection between something that’s being done in 10th-grade biology and 10th-grade English,” said Bauer, principal at Upper Merion High School in King of Prussia.

That kind of interdisciplinary collaboration makes content more relevant and meaningful. 

“We rely on experts like Sharon to create those connections and the opportunities for those connections,” Bauer said.

A new research project on Pennsylvania’s school libraries is beginning to quantify what Bauer and other school leaders understand already.

Supporting the Infrastructure Needs of 21st Century School Library Programs is an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant-funded research project designed to study what school library infrastructure contributes most to student achievement, and to examine the gap between what exists in Pennsylvania’s school library programs and what students need.

The Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and the Education Law Center are partners on the grant along with the Health Sciences Library Consortium, the agency that administers statewide library projects, including ACCESS PA and the POWER Library databases.

The project builds off of the State Board of Education’s Pennsylvania School Library Study finalized in September 2011. The study, a result of a resolution from the state Legislature, revealed many inequities in terms of staffing, resources, technology, and access to instruction and library services.

With funding from IMLS, a team of researchers has been contracted to investigate:

  • What library components, such as staffing, budgets, collections, technology, and access hours, contribute most to student  achievement
  • The costs and benefits associated with them
  • The gap between current Pennsylvania school library programs and what is needed to develop students with 21st century skills.

As school officials continue to face difficult budget decisions, the data from the new research project can provide evidence of the value of investing in school library programs, and on the potential pitfalls of losing an up-to-date, diverse library collection of instructional materials and a trained librarian, who collaborates with teachers on instruction and integrates resources and technology into curricula.

Preliminary research results from examining library staffing, and PSSA reading and writing scores show:

  • Consistently, reading scores are higher for students who have a full-time certified librarian than those who do not. This is true of all students, regardless of their socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and disability status
  • Students who are economically disadvantaged, Black, Hispanic, and have disabilities benefit proportionally more than students generally
  • Writing scores are three times higher for students who have a full-time certified librarian than those who do not.

In addition to the data analysis, insight from educators, parents, and community stakeholders on the value of school library programs will be paired with the research findings. Four regional  focus groups were held to gather input. Attending were school administrators; representatives from education orgniza-tions, such as PSEA, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools; parents; and community and business leaders.

With initial data clearly showing strong student achievement results connected to schools with good library programs, Edward Albert, superintendent of the Tulpehocken School District, echoed the value of linking the library to classroom instruction.

“If collaboration is strong, the librarian can be the hub to the wheel and get teachers thinking about and wondering how they lived without library collaboration,” Albert said.

Judith Touré, assistant professor at Carlow University, reinforced that concept when she expressed concerns about high-stakes testing as compared to the real process of learning.

“We need to reframe the role of librarians as working with teachers and students,” Touré said.

Sonya Brintnall, a parent and speech pathologist from Philadelphia, stated,

“Teachers have so much on their plates these days, schools need specialists to share their expertise and work in tandem with teachers.”

The Pennsylvania study, which will be completed in the fall, is already proving that school libraries improve teaching and learning, close achievement gaps among students, and improve PSSA reading and writing scores.

To learn more, go to 

Also contributing to the article were Sandra Zelno, Education Law Center project director, and Brett Schaeffer, Education Law Center communications director.



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