3 Questions to Predict School Success


For Dr. Suess’s birthday, I did three school visits this week. The schools were vastly different: two were rural districts and one was probably one of the oldest buildings in the state; the other was urban and brand-new, complete with every bell and whistle, rug and computer you could want.

Yet, three things were constant:
First, the library media specialist was a VIP in the success of the school. It was obvious that these librarians cared, not just because they brought me in to speak (though, caring enough to bring in authors is special), but because they knew all the kids AND their taste in reading.

For the second and third things in common consider this: when I visit a school, I ask two questions. While I’m waiting for everyone to get into the auditorium or room, I talk to kids–hey, that’s what I’m there for, to interact with kids. “So,” I ask, “what have you been reading lately? Or what’s your favorite book you’ve read this year?”

And I ask the librarian, “What’s your circulation like? How many books do you check out each day/week/month? (Whichever stat they want to give me.)”

From those two questions, I can predict with almost 100% accuracy school with good reading scores and those on 2nd- or 3rd-year improvement (A term from the No Child Left Behind legislation, which loosely means their test scores are way below par).

Schools with high test scores

Kids are excited to tell me about the books they’ve been reading. Across a class, there are a number of titles, most of which I recognize, but often some I haven’t read or even heard of. The librarian reports checking out at least 1 book/child/week and usually the stats are far above that. (Ex. 500 books/week for a school with 500 students.)

Schools with low test scores

Kids often give excuses for not knowing the last book they read: I don’t like reading; I don’t remember, I just took the test and then forgot it; I don’t read. When titles are mentioned, it’s the one title that the teacher is currently reading aloud. The librarian reports few check-outs, usually citing the difficulty of keeping everything shelved.

For example, I went to one middle school of 500 students. The school had no library media specialist (mistake #1); the library aide reported that sometimes they checked out 25-30 books/day, but she liked it a lot better when they only checked out 15 because it was an easier day. What? A school of 500 students and they only checked out a max of 100-150 books/week and usually less than 100. Totally crazy!

Guess what? That school was on 2nd-year school improvement and was heading for a third year, with no help in sight (WHERE are you Library Media Specialist?)

Start asking the Questions when you visit schools and report back. If a school checks out at least 1 book/child/week–are the reading scores for that school good? And the opposite, if few books are checked out, are the scores awful? It’s easy to predict the success of a school from this one crucial question: are kids engaged with reading?

Library Media Specialist and Librarians–I love you! You make such a difference in the community of a school. Great new building? Falling down around you ancient building? Doesn’t matter. Technology up to date or ancient? Doesn’t matter. Give me the oldest school around and a great librarian-and I’ll take on the world!

  • E.J. Apostrophe
    March 3, 2011

    Wow…thanks for putting this into perspective. This even reinforces reading to children for home-schooling. The more they digest, the more they learn. What a payout!

  • Alexis O'Neill
    March 4, 2011

    Darcy – Great post — and it’s so true. All the bells and whistles can’t compare to a school with a library and a dedicated library-media specialist. Why is it so hard to convince legislators of this? Why are our school libraries disappearing across the country?

  • Kimberley Griffiths Little
    March 4, 2011

    This past year all the librarians were let go for the 11 elementary schools in my school district. There are two who now take care of 11 libraries – INSANE!!! Most of the time the library is empty, unless they can get a parent to come in and stamp books for an hour or two. And people wonder why New Mexico has such a high rate of illiteracy and high school drop-outs!

    One of the librarians said that for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year they are talking about letting the two go so there are NO school librarians at all. Oh, it’s due to budget cuts! I have no words to express the outrage and stupidity. Do we really need 3 secretaries to take attendance at the high school and a bevy of vice-principals???

    These two librarians are saints! They’ve been working 14 hour days to keep up with everything and doing Book Fairs at multiple schools, running around like crazy.

  • Heather Ivester
    March 5, 2011

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I’ve been volunteering at my children’s library the past year,and nothing brings me more joy than hearing how a child connected with a great book!

    Our hometown public library is also experiencing a lot of budget cuts. We’re trying to get the whole community involved in various fundraisers. Your post reminds me how important it is for children to engage with literature, and to pass their excitement along to their parents.

  • Darcy Pattison
    March 7, 2011

    What are they thinking? It’s SO easy to predict reading scores by walking in the school’s library and asking those simple questions. So Sad!