Can Small Data Improve K-12 Education?

With the No Child Left Behind Act, yearly students in grades 3-8 and once in high school are tested in mathematics and reading using standardized testing. In addition, states required their own testing for school and teacher evaluation. The information gleaned from these tests are then analyzed and the goal was for data to aid policy-makers in making improvements to our education system. Unfortunately, there is now more data available than can even be consumed and student outcomes have not made any significant improvements in over a decade.

Big data is a term used to describe large amounts of collected information that can only be analyzed via computers. Big data has become a cornerstone of our education system in the U.S. but it doesn’t seem to be working, according o experts. Pasi Sahlberg, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the leading experts on education practices and school reform tells the Washington Post that he believes a focus on “small data” could make vast improvements in education.

With big data not doing much to fix education in America, a new focus on small data, or a focus on what is happening in individual schools and classrooms, is emerging. As the Washington Post article points out, a better understanding of what quality teaching is and how it leads to enhanced learning in schools should be the concentration of policy-makers. Small data observes the details or small clues that uncover large trends. The idea is that by honing in on the elements that make up relationships and narratives in schools, education can be enriched.

By getting away from student assessments, more energy and resources could go to teacher training and formative school assessments. More autonomy and accountability for students would increase and improve their outcomes.

To improve teaching and learning nationwide, reformers may need to examine small data trends to gain insight into what is occurring in the classroom and how those outcomes can lead to better-quality education. If the standardized method of understanding students on a large scale isn’t working, it must change.


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