Zooming in on Teacher Data Use Practices: Understanding the Logics of Ability Grouping and Differentiated Instruction By: Vicki Park and Amanda Datnow

Across the globe, teachers are being asked to use data to guide their instructional decision making. The belief is that by using data, teachers can better differentiate instruction according to students’ needs. But how exactly are decisions about differentiated instruction made? And to what extent does the use of data lead to grouping of students by ability?

Methods for and reasons for student groupings vary widely and it is unclear to what extent ability grouping is becoming conflated with or embedded in differentiated instruction. While tracking has long been a controversial practice, differentiated instruction (DI) has been presented as a positive approach to meet the needs of diverse learners.  DI moves beyond simple grouping of students by ability to consider how content, pacing, and presentation of the curriculum can support the individualized needs of each child based on their skill level, learning style, and interests. So how do teachers make sense of ability grouping and instructional differentiation in the era of data-driven decision making?

In our recent study, “Ability Grouping and Differentiated Instruction in an Era of Data-Driven Decision Making,” we examined the organizational and policy factors that shaped how teachers differentiate instruction as well as the types of logics that informed their instructional groupings and data uses across four elementary schools. We analyzed data from two rounds of semi-structured interviews with 27 upper-elementary grades teachers, principals, and other key personnel (e.g., instructional coaches, where present) and 127 hours of observational data.

Co-constructing Differentiated Instruction

Our findings reveal how teachers’ decisions to ability group and differentiate were co-constructed with decisions made at the district, school, and teacher team levels. Even before teachers decided how to group students, adapt content, or adjust their lessons, district and school policies set the conditions for teachers’ decisions. Districts and schools influenced the degree and types of differentiation in the classroom mainly in three ways: mandated time for instructional differentiation, curriculum options, and online program adoption. The decisions made at these “higher” levels prioritized how and to what extent teachers differentiated instruction. Specific mandates and tools also bracketed teachers’ sensemaking about what types of student grouping practices were needed.

When mandated or explicitly stated as a goal, district and school policies about individual student goal setting and equitable access required teachers to make differentiation or mixed ability grouping a priority. Curriculum tools provided by the district, such as leveled readers, English Language Arts workshop formats, or online programs that individualized lessons for students, aided instructional differentiation and made it more likely to occur. Other curriculum that tended to focus on whole group instruction and teaching of discrete skills constrained teachers’ ability to do so. Thus, choices for DI were simultaneously winnowed and expanded.

Teachers, school leaders, and district administrators share overlapping spheres of influence with regards to curriculum and instruction. Yet, they are situated in differing levels of power that serve to prioritize and privilege certain behaviors and beliefs over others.

Teachers’ Logics on Differentiation and Data Use

At the same time actions taken at “higher” levels did not fully determine teacher actions; rather, teachers co-constructed what DI meant for their day-to-day classroom practice as they engaged in sensemaking about the tools and policies provided to them. This sensemaking was expressed through the different logics by which teachers organized DI and the varied ways in which they used data on student learning to inform their strategies. Both flexible ability grouping and DI were practiced across grade levels and within classrooms. A variety of data were used to inform these practices, with academic performance data, such as benchmark assessments and teacher created formative assessments, were used most frequently.

Different types of student grouping and DI decisions reflected particular logics that guided the implementation of these practices. Mixed ability grouping often happened through classroom placement and within classrooms. Classroom placements were guided by the logic of “balance” which educators often defined as having a diversity of students with varied academic abilities and social-cultural backgrounds. Schools used the widest range and types of data to inform these decisions, including results on standardized testing, academic and social history, and teacher observations.

Within classrooms, teachers justified some mixed ability grouping on the basis of engaging students’ unique perspectives for complex problem solving. More often, it was justified by the logic that higher performing students could provide further support for struggling students or reduce stigma. In this case, mixed ability grouping did not reflect the logic of DI or equity—which often focuses on meeting the needs of all learners. Ability grouping occurred within classrooms as well but these ranged from static to flexible groupings that changed quarterly, weekly or sometimes daily. Teachers made grouping decisions not just on generalized categories of high, middle, and low performance but also based on content topics and domains of knowledge/skills.

Moving Towards Instructional Decision Making as Co-constructed Activity

Rather than treating instructional decision making as an individual activity, our analysis suggests that is a process that is simultaneously enabled and constrained by policies, curriculum tools, and logics about the purposes of differentiation. Teachers, school leaders, and district administrators share overlapping spheres of influence with regards to curriculum and instruction. Yet, they are situated in differing levels of power that serve to prioritize and privilege certain behaviors and beliefs over others. Teachers’ sensemaking of DI interact with these external demands so that instead of singular or consistent logic for grouping practices across ELA and math, they engage in contingent decision making. However, they still have a great deal of autonomy in determining classroom grouping practices.

Thus, we argue that future research on teachers’ uses of data needs to take a multi-contextual approach to understand how instructional decisions are actually made. While our analysis indicates that ability grouping and DI occur simultaneously, there is still much to learn about how teachers make meaning of these practices and the extent to which changes in the larger institutional environment inform their decisions.


Vicki Park is Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at San José State University and a Research Scholar at the Utah Education Policy Center. Her work broadly focuses on urban school reform, data-informed leadership for equity, and how educators make sense of policy implementation.

Amanda Datnow is Professor in the Department of Education Studies and Associate Dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on educational reform and policy, with a particular interest in issues of equity, leadership, and teachers’ professional lives.

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