No term in education has had a stronger run during the NCLB era of Education than fidelity. The term has become despised by most educators and misused as an accountability term. Fidelity has been hijacked by trainers and salesman alike as a way to train teachers on how to implement resources and instructional strategies. Consistently we hear, “you must implement this resource with fidelity if you want the expected results.” Principals tell their teachers, “I will be coming into your classroom to ensure that you implementing our program with fidelity.” When the word fidelity is used in this way, many leaders or trainers believe they are increasing the accountability for teachers. In my opinion, this use of the word has negatively affected instruction in almost every classroom in our country. When teachers are directed to implement something with fidelity it immediately de-emphasizes planning and reflection. It suggests that I am being held accountable, for reading a script or going through sections of a lesson as written and therefore increases the importance of a material and decreases the importance of teacher actions and student learning results.
Aligning the word fidelity to a program or strategy that is to be routinely implemented by teachers has lowered the accountability for all involved. The misguided belief that a program or resource teaches students is a belief that has paralleled the high stakes testing movement. Unfortunately, no resource or program has this power, education is a human business and humans make the difference. However, trainers hired by text book companies have learned to talk extensively about fidelity because it always provides an out for them when it becomes apparent that the resource by itself did not make for improved student learning…at that point the company or trainer can always say that it is because the program was not implemented with…fidelity.
Additionally, teachers can use the same approach when students in their classroom do not learn, if they come in every day and read directly from script and present the program with “fidelity” and students don’t learn, how can they be held accountable when they were just doing as directed. They don’t plan lessons, they just use the next one in the resource, they don’t reflect on the lesson, they just move on aimlessly because that is what they have been told to do. Teachers who change their lessons for the betterment of their students or supplement the resource are by definition, not teaching the program with fidelity.
If we think of fidelity on a continuum, we have the total absence of fidelity on one end and complete and total fidelity on the other end. An absence of fidelity is chaos with no organizing structure to connect teachers or their teaching and no resources to support that structure. This is clearly not a desirable environment. However, total fidelity is a mindless implementation of a structure or program that does not consider student needs, formative assessment, learning style or teacher skill. This is also damaging and unfortunately we have been too close to this end of the continuum recently. My proposed solution is to redefine fidelity and align it to instructional purpose, not fidelity to a program or a material. School leaders must realize that there are things that we must have fidelity to: instructional planning, formative assessment, whole group instruction, small group instruction and independent learning. We must have fidelity to these concepts and not to a resource or program. This increases accountability by using student learning as the priority and not a process of delivery. If we re-focus fidelity on classroom instruction and the purpose of that instruction and away from resources and materials, we can infuse both accountability and teacher professionalism to improve our classrooms.