Data-Driven Instructional Methods: 'One Strategy Fits All' Doesn't Work in Real Classrooms


The concept of "professional development" begins the moment an educator wakes up in the morning. It's an ongoing, thoughtful approach to the way in which students are taught, as well as a willingness to incorporate tools to improve teaching strategies. And despite challenging work conditions, crowded classrooms and overtime hours, teachers who love to teach will always find ways to excel at what they do best.

Critical Data Interpretation

Thousands of new teachers and second-career teachers enter the field of education each year, and their principals and supervisors are held accountable as never before for their teaching strategies. The landscape regarding assessment tests, formative test-scoring data, and the use of that data to modify lesson plans have been forever altered by No Child Left Behind Act requirements. State departments of education implement comprehensive assessment programs, and teachers must respond to those programs with curricula designed to produce high test scores and improved student performance overall to align with state standards. In this new testing culture, access to test scores isn't in the hands of a relative few anymore. This data now drives the way teachers construct their lesson plans and teaching practices.

State districts are moving to administer formative tests to provide them with a forecast of student performance on standardized tests. These forecasting tools are invaluable because they enable teachers to intervene if a student's scores are too low. The move toward data-based decision-making resulted when school districts realized that "random acts of professional development do not lead to sustained school improvement" (Sanborn 2002). Teachers must continually reach new levels of expertise in their own content areas. They must also become nimble and adept at interpreting data to adjust lesson plans, improve instruction, and manage classrooms to bolster each student's performance on assessment tests.

Publishers of professional development programs can serve the teaching community in two important areas. They can model state standards so that teachers learn to teach to those standards, as well as provide teacher training in formative test data interpretation. The key factor at this stage of the testing/data interpretation/ teaching cycle is the way in which scoring data are translated into lesson planning. The ability to implement data obtained through professional development programs isn't just a necessary function of teaching - it's a critical one.

Differentiated Instruction Improves Test Scores

Professional development planning that is based on data helps teachers understand ways in which to address student needs, especially when data consistently points to a weak subject area. Schools that base staff development on data results learn that their improvement strategies align with goals and therefore have a greater chance of being implemented (Sanborn 2002).

Differentiated instruction (i.e., the process of addressing different student needs in a classroom) is vital to effecting positive change in student performance, because the one-strategy-fits-all approach d'esn't work in a real classroom. It's now necessary to construct lesson plans to address individual needs so that no student is unprepared for standardized tests. In today's classrooms, a group of students may work at the board while another group works on a different subject at their seats. Each group is addressing an area in which their formative tests indicated a need for improvement.

Online, On-Site Professional Development Formats

Professional development programs are based on an evaluation process that determines the concept skills and strategies to be incorporated into a particular instructional situation. There is a great need for solid training in content and best practices.

Educators can choose from both on-site and online professional development programs. Online formats provide teachers with immediate feedback, but there is a learning curve with regard to the technology involved in the use and implementation of these formats. In the real world, students are more technologically advanced than their teachers due to the fact that technology pervades almost every aspect of a child's life beginning at a very early age. Supervisory support for teacher training in technology helps educators stay even with, if not ahead of, this technology learning curve.

This kind of top-down support for professional development is one of the major overall factors driving its success in these days of teacher accountability. Louis V. Gerstner Jr. addressed the need to create and implement strong professional development programs at his 2001 National Education Summit by proposing that educational communities provide teachers with "the kinds of assets that are taken for granted in other professions - access to high-quality teaching materials, tools [and] professional development."

McGraw-Hill Education is one company answering educators' requests for speedy test results by developing smaller, more comprehensive online courses. Teachers also respond enthusiastically to professional development training tools in video format. They appreciate watching concept skills and strategies applied in a real classroom by a real instructor. These video tools help train teachers effectively in lesson preparation and classroom management, as well as give them ideas on applying best practices.


Sanborn, J. 2002. "Targeted Training." The School Administrator, December.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.