I am currently supporting school leaders in a district that has implemented new curriculum programs for both ELA and Math. The programs impact both “what is being taught” and “how to approach student learning.” There is a very clear desire across the system to increase student learning success. As the program materials are being explored in professional development, grade-level meetings, and coaching conversation the need for fidelity in implementation has arisen.
Research indicates that, though many schools are implementing evidence-based practices, they often do not implement them as intended.
*Lack of implementation fidelity might result in a practice or program being less effective, less efficient, or producing less predictable responses.
*When programs implemented with fidelity are compared to programs not implemented with fidelity, the difference in effectiveness is profound. Those implemented with fidelity yield average effect sizes that are two to three times higher.
I have frequently touched on this implementation question throughout the years when exploring student learning production behaviors. I recall coaching in a system that had implemented an elementary science program with an emphasis on student investigation and discovery. Three years into implementation I observed in classrooms where the “kits and materials” were present during science instruction, but the teachers had not changed instruction so the desired student learning behaviors were not present. I believe that way too often we identify student learning results and decide a program was ineffective when the “program” was not implemented.
I have written previously about the impact of word choices we make in our coaching practices. I think fidelity is one of those words that can be tricky. I believe teachers can take different meanings from the statement, “The program must be followed with fidelity.”
These words from Jim Knight illustrate the concerns around the word fidelity.
“I suspect that an overemphasis on fidelity likely leads to low quality instruction where teachers do every task on a checklist but do not teach with passion, or love, or even in a manner that involves reflection.”
“At worst, too much focus on fidelity can lead teachers to feel like they’re working on an assembly line putting widgets together rather than engaging in the complex, important art of inspiring and educating tomorrow’s leaders.” (Jim Knight, ASCD)
My thought is that the concept of program fidelity requires a depth of conversation and exploration. Many years back I trained instructors to lead a teacher education graduate course that was highly scripted. I explored with these instructors how the materials empowered them. First, the activities had been field-tested. So, when participants complained about the design of the roleplay activities, instructors could share that they had been proven to impact learner outcomes. Secondly, the preparation of the learning activities, including questions for debriefing an activity, allowed major planning and instructional energy to be invested in making it work for your particular learners.
Fidelity certainly does not mean mindlessly following a script. I believe a commitment to ongoing observation of each other’s practices with critical, rich conversations is needed. I think that programs designed to impact increased student learning require an increased depth of learning and practice for teachers.
“Trust the program” is a phrase that warrants care in our use with new program implementation. I often discuss the connection between vulnerability and trust. (Earlier blog) For trust to build, vulnerability is necessary. There is a level of “risking” for trust to build.
Consider these components of trust:
- Being able to have a sense of security and confidence when dealing with someone/something
- Having the ability to predict that someone/something will act in specific ways and be dependable
- Earning a level of credibility that has built up over time
I think when we introduce a new curriculum program, we are asking the teacher to join us in being vulnerable. A request to implement, question, observe and report out along the way invites the teacher to be a member of the district team focused on maximizing students’ success. I think the word fidelity can fit into this vulnerability conversation. For the evidence and data from the teachers’ observations, student engagement and learning assessment to build systemic understanding, fidelity of implementation is critical.
The implementation of new curriculums and/or instructional strategies should create an opportunity for increased team building across a school system. Fidelity is important and unlikely to be built through supervision. Teacher engagement in partnerships with curriculum supervisors, instructional coaches, building and district administrators, all sharing in elements of vulnerability, can create a continuous learning community serving students.