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Small Data: Cracking the Code of Student Success

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By Jennifer Medbery

A trail of "big data" now follows each student from the first day of kindergarten through high school graduation and beyond. Technology allows teachers and administrators to capture, organize and analyze this information, so they can act on it in a timely way. But is it having an effect on student learning and achievement?

The Washington Post recently examined this topic in an article that featured a blog post by Pasi Sahlberg and Jonathan Hasak, who asserted that "there is now more data available than can reasonably be consumed and yet there has been no significant improvement in outcomes." They believe that "to improve teaching and learning, it behooves reformers to pay more attention to small data -- to the diversity and beauty that exists in every classroom -- and the causation they reveal in the present."

As a former classroom teacher, I wholeheartedly agree in the power of small data. While big data -- which includes an array of demographic and student achievement data, among other things -- can be very helpful, it is not enough. Teachers and administrators need access to data about what's going on behind classroom doors and across the school. This is where small data -- such as observation of students' behavior and social interactions, and assessment of their emotional well-being -- can help.

The term "small data" comes from Martin Lindstrom and his book, "Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends." Lindstrom defines small data as: "Seemingly insignificant behavioral observations containing very specific attributes pointing towards an unmet customer need. Small data is the foundation for breakthrough ideas or completely new ways to turnaround brands." He asks, "What is data without humanity?"

That's a good question. While Lindstrom believes that businesses can use small data to crack the code of consumer desires, I believe that K-12 schools and districts can use it to crack the code of student success.

There's no question that behavioral, social and emotional issues can impede academic achievement. In fact, the vast majority of K-12 administrators and teachers believe that addressing student behavior -- and its underlying social and emotional needs -- is a critical step in increasing student outcomes.

In a new research report, "The State of Climate & Culture Initiatives in America's Schools," more than 90 percent of the K-12 teachers and administrators surveyed believe that behavioral issues get in the way of learning and that academic interventions cannot be successful if behavioral issues are not addressed. Further, 91 percent believe that students who are academically at-risk often have behavioral, social or emotional issues at the heart of their struggles.

Yet, few of these educators have systems in place to consistently collect this small data and use it as evidence to support their decisions. In the research report, only about a third of teachers said they were recording positive or disruptive behaviors for all students, or analyzing these data.

One reason for this disconnect is that many educators don't have easy access to streamlined, comprehensive information they can use to drive decisions. The reality is that teachers have been tracking student behavior on paper for decades. However, there can be quite a bit of variance in what's actually being tracked for each student, in each classroom, and across each school. In fact, both teachers and administrators say that inconsistency in the types of behaviors being tracked, monitored and recorded is the main challenge to implementing a climate and culture program.  

This is now even more problematic because the Every Student Succeeds Act requires that states incorporate at least one non-academic factor -- such as student engagement or school climate and safety -- into their accountability systems. This means that small data is going to be playing a bigger role in school accountability.

In addition to uncovering big trends, small data can create big turnarounds. For example, at Lowery Elementary School in Donaldsonville, La., Principal Dawn Love knew that student behavior was impeding learning, so she dug into small data. She found that the school had more than 1,900 behavioral infractions during the 2012-13 school year. Of those, more than 1,600 occurred in the classroom, which equated to 25,395 minutes of instruction missed. She also noticed a strong correlation between the number of minutes students were out of class and whether or not they passed state assessments. After all, how can students learn if they're not in the classroom?

In fall 2013, Lowery Elementary began using a school culture system and recognizing students with points for positive behaviors each day. From 2013 to 2014, the number of behavioral infractions decreased by 29 percent. The school also increased its School Performance Score by 5.5 points and an entire letter grade.

As this example shows, we can no longer ignore the link between big data and the smaller clues that can yield important information about a student and his or her performance.

There are other clues hidden behind classroom doors that can have a big impact. Thirty years of research shows that classroom management is rated first in impact on student achievement. Further, one of the most important factors that contribute to successful classroom management is high-quality teacher-student relationships. In a 2003 meta-analysis of more than 100 studies, Robert J. Marzano and Jana S. Marzano found that "on average, teachers who had high-quality relationships with their students had 31 percent fewer discipline problems, rule violations, and related problems over a year's time than did teachers who did not have high-quality relationships with their students."

Clearly, we need to be paying attention to more than big data in the classroom. This means that tracking and managing small data is no longer simply a "nice-to-have" capability; it is a "must-have" to create a classroom culture and a school culture that is truly conducive to learning.

Easing the process of data collection and a using consistent system of recognition and consequences for student behavior can help establish better balance and uniformity across small data. There are systems that can help, but first, K-12 administrators and teachers need to acknowledge and understand the big role that small data can play in student learning and school improvement and communicate this to all education stakeholders from policy makers to parents. Until we add small data to the formula for school improvement, we'll continue to stare at a hole in student performance that big data simply can't fill.

Jennifer Medbery is the CEO of Kickboard, developer of the Kickboard school culture system. After receiving a Computer Science degree from Columbia University, Medbery spent several years with Teach for America teaching children in low-income communities. She then served as a founding teacher at a New Orleans charter school, where she developed the idea for Kickboard.



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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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