Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices: Fidelity: To WHAT and to WHOM? (First of a 5-Part Series)

by Mary Howard

You can revisit our Wakelet chat artifact here

#G2Great launched a five-part series on 4/8/21: Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices. We dedicated our first chat in the series to a topic that is sorely in need of new thinking: Fidelity to WHAT and to WHOM? We also explored fidelity in a series in year 1 of #G2great: Reclaiming Our Professional Language: Spotlight on Fidelity. This was prior to starting a blog on our 2nd anniversary 1/5/16: Looking Back On Our Good to Great Journey.

In order to engage in a discussion about fidelity, it makes sense to begin with a definition:

Synonyms that are associated with “fidelity” are shown in the visual

You may be wondering why the above references suggest the need to re-examine and revise “fidelity” in order to transform our practices. Shouldn’t we want to approach our teaching with dependability, reliability, constancy and such? While these descriptors appear to be desirable qualities, it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no. Rather, it depends on who or what is asking for our fidelity and the degree and form of allegiance expected. It’s actually far less about the qualities and far more about the intent of what we find beneath the surface of those qualities. 

To make this distinction clear, I want to turn to our chat subtitle written in the form of a question we should all be asking: Fidelity to WHAT and to WHOM? Our response to this question should uncover where the fidelity path diverges into widely varying perspectives. The path we choose to take directly impacts our students and has the potential to either make our children the sacrificial lambs or the fortunate benefactors of our directional decision-making.

So let’s take a look at two wide-ranging fidelity paths:

The Dark Side of Fidelity: Rigid Misplaced Trust

Unfortunately, fidelity has morphed into an undesirable stance, largely fueled by our continuing quest to raise standardized test scores. This is driving many schools to seek out quick fixes that are readily available from companies eagerly awaiting a chance to tout their wares for a price. This open sales opportunity door has created an educational marketing frenzy riddled with suspect publishers peddling equally suspect physical or digital products. In many cases, these products are created by individuals with little or no background in education, so they often pay an expert to make them look legitimate. The program is generally connected to assessment used to magically transform the resulting rigid data into rigid preconceived solutions. Schools may also pay consultants to promote the program, warning teachers that success requires following this fail-proof program “with fidelity.” This translates to blind faith in a program destined to reduce students and teachers to instructional sameness even with one-size-fits-all features under the guise of differentiation. Sadly, school or district mandates may offer teachers no option.

The Responsible Side of Fidelity: Fidelity with Flexibility (aka Flexi-delity)

On the other side of the diverging fidelity path are excellent research-based models designed and supported by highly knowledgeable educators and researchers. Two examples are Reading Recovery and Comprehensive Intervention Model. In both cases, research guides all aspects of the model including student-centered assessments that inform instruction. In stark contrast to the above description, these models embrace professional responsibility to the child and the informed moment to moment decisions of highly knowledgeable teachers. In each example, teachers draw from a specific instructional design but their professional agency and informed choices made in the context of teaching are honored and even encouraged rather than vilified. There are no scripts to follow or student activity forms to duplicate because professional learning is at the center of an instructional process where authentic reading and writing are the focal point of all learning experiences. Fidelity in these models are viewed from a lens of flexibility.

Perusing our chat Wakelet, it’s clear that our #G2great friends are as passionate as we are about the topic of fidelity since the twitter style chat conversation proceeded at passion-fueled warp speed. Thankfully I can revisit and capture their wise words so that I can sprinkle twitter wisdom across this post. Fran McVeigh’s opening tweet nicely distinguishes my two diverging paths:

Given my two varying fidelity paths, I hope that I have made it clear that I am not opposed to fidelity but to whom and to what our fidelity is offered. To support this distinction, I use three questions to consider if fidelity fits the dark side, the responsible side or somewhere in between:

  1. Is the program created by highly KNOWLEDGEABLE professionals (vs marketers) who draw from the current research available? 
  2. Does the program encourage educators to use it as a RESOURCE and thus invite their own professional judgment?
  3. Is the program based on AUTHENTIC practices that actively engage students in meaningful, purposeful and responsive reading, writing, talking and thinking?  

Dr. Rachel Gabriel helps us to think about the flaw of fidelity to scripted programs in an incredible ILA webinar with Kate Roberts: The Research-Practice Conversation: Understanding and Bridging the Divide. (Bold print is mine for emphasis)

“You can have the same program and same script but get very different results. Everything is the same except that you are still there and how you express it to kids is different. My art is expressing that information using my own energy and experience and passion.” 

I would be remiss if I didn’t take some liberty in this post by suggesting a third form of fidelity often ignored: Fidelity to our own desires. In some cases, there is no program involved but teachers nevertheless make decisions that are not informed by literacy research. There can be many reasons for this such as the failure of schools to ensure high quality professional learning across the year, preservice teaching assigned to a classroom where limited research practices are evident, lack of mentor support for new teachers, partnerships where less than effective practices are perpetuated and spread, lack of interest in personal professional curiosity that fuels ongoing study, the use of “fun” and “cute” to justify practices or even a lingering appreciation for whatever might be easy and expedient. How can we follow a path leading to research-informed flexible understandings if these things are driving the decision-making bus?

Regardless of whether fidelity plays a role in any instructional experience, I would argue that showing fidelity to a program, practice approach or even personal belief while turning our back on our responsibility to children is not a virtue at all.

I’d like to close with the words of my very wise friend, Susan Vincent, in an interview that Dr. Sam Bommarito shared as I was writing this post: A former reading recovery teacher, trainer and current university professor talks about reading recovery. Susan’s words seem appropriate here since resolving the fidelity issue is inseparably linked to the quality of learning opportunities we are afforded and how we use them to enrich, elevate and extend our understandings in ways that can leave us forever changed. In explaining the life-changing impact of Reading Recovery, Susan says,

“It changed me as a person. It changed me as a risk taker. I learned how to open myself and my teaching up to my colleagues and be vulnerable and say, “Come and watch me teach. Here’s my teaching, help me get better.” When you do that regularly, it just changes you as a person. You become a risk-taker. You become a person who says, “I want to get better all the time.” You become a better learner. After I was trained in Reading Recovery, I knew that I would always be a learner for the rest of my career. I would always want to know the latest research…. It’s not just about learning reading techniques. It’s about becoming a true literacy professional.”


As I close this post, I am wondering if we simply perpetuate the status quote as educators or are willing to do the hard work necessary to experience a life-changing professional transformation Susan describes. If research informs practices and dedicated study is seen as a professional commitment, just imagine the impact on our day-to-day teaching. Growing understandings can help us to modify programs, whether mandated or not, or even give us the confidence to move away from them in the future. Most important, this would shift out focus from meeting the needs of some children based on grade level obligations to unwavering responsiveness to the needs of unique learners based on that knowledge. I suspect that you’d all agree that we did not enter this profession to become compliant disseminators. Rather, we were motivated to be professionally responsible decision-makers in schools where professional learning over time is deemed our first priority. If this were the case, then our ever deepening understandings about students would be the catalyst for the responsive professional decisions we make in the name of children. 

The truth is, that this would be a substantially less costly investment of time, money and energy as well as the extensive loss of student learning than we invest in uninformed snake oil salesmen.

Please join us for other chats in our #G2great series shown below