I was speaking with a teacher about the new reading program her district adopted. She lamented that administration had told the teachers, in no uncertain terms, that the program was to be implemented with strict “fidelity.” She said the word with unmistakable disdain. Like how most people say, “phlegm.” It’s no wonder. There isn’t a teacher in the world that likes the word fidelity. It’s the most offensive F-word in education, and for damn good reason.
The reason administrators demand fidelity is blatantly obvious but never admitted. Ask your curriculum director why you can’t supplement when you see the need, and you’ll be lied to. He’ll prattle on about a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” and how it’s “research-based” and “Board-approved.” He’ll tell you it’s Common Core aligned.
The real reason districts demand fidelity is they don’t trust their teachers. They don’t respect their abilities, dedication, or decision-making. They believe that, left to their own devices, teachers will ignore the standards, use ineffective practices, and, I don’t know, run around with their pants around their ankles while singing Neil Diamond songs. Put simply, when a district tells you to teach with fidelity and never supplement based on your observations and analyses of student outcomes, it’s sending a clear message that they don’t view you as a professional.
Such a district’s opinion of you is so low it’s willing to put the education of your students in the hands of a huge corporation, whose only motive is profit, ahead of you. You might think that such unbending faith is the result of compelling evidence of a program’s efficacy. You’d be wrong. Johns Hopkins researchers found that districts primarily rely on piloting and peer recommendation when selecting new programs, not evidence that it actually leads to higher student achievement.
But we don’t need rigorous research to tell us what is blindingly self-evident: If there were a program that consistently raised test scores, every school would be using it. The fact that neighboring districts tell their teachers to implement two different programs with fidelity is all we need to recognize the folly of placing unfaltering trust in such programs.
Fidelity does real damage. It destroys teacher morale. New teachers quickly learn that they won’t be permitted to use much of what they just learned in college. Skilled teachers become exasperated at being micromanaged and distrusted. All teachers resent the loss of autonomy. It’s bad for teachers, and it’s also bad for districts. Autonomy is positively associated with teacher job satisfaction. Research shows that when teachers perceive a loss of autonomy they are more likely to leave their positions. Demanding fidelity leads to resentful employees, greater instability, and higher costs associated with attrition.
The worst thing about fidelity is that it harms kids. A student who struggles to read is stuck with text they can’t access. A student who can’t pass the grade level test is consigned to failure for nine straight months. A program that doesn’t work must be taught the entire year. And those students must spend every day with a teacher who is demoralized, frustrated, and feeling like a failure while that teacher is simultaneously hamstrung from making the very changes that would lead to improved student performance and higher personal well-being.
Perhaps the most galling aspect of being told to implement a program with fidelity is that teachers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If a teacher judges halfway through the year that the program is ineffective and decides to break from it to help students do better, they risk getting reprimanded (or worse) for insubordination.
If teachers do as they’re instructed — if they play the good soldier and follow their marching orders– but their students don’t succeed, you can bet that the people who decided fidelity was such a good idea won’t be falling on their swords. They will not accept responsibility. They won’t be writing to the Board and explaining that teachers really shouldn’t be held accountable for state test scores because all they did was what they were told to do. They won’t offer to resign from their jobs if a teacher can be scapegoated instead.
The irony of all this is that if a teacher pledged strict fidelity to an unproven program, every administrator would think her lazy and incompetent. Imagine such a conversation:
Admin: How do you assess your students?
Teacher: I give the test included in the program.
Admin: Do those tests give you good information? Do they help inform your instruction?
Teacher: Doesn’t matter. That’s what I’m using. All year. Even with kids that can’t read it. And it doesn’t matter if the tests inform instruction, because I’m just going to open the book and teach what it says to teach anyway.
Admin: What will you do to address the needs of learners who struggle with the content?
Teacher: Probably not much. I’ll look in the program to see if it offers anything that might help those students, but if not, I’m not going to pull from any other resources or use evidence-based interventions unless they’re included in the program.
Admin: What will you do if the assessments indicate that students aren’t learning the content; that your instruction isn’t working?
Teacher: Keep going! I’m certainly not going to investigate other ways of teaching. I’m just going to stick with the program.
Admin: It appears that this program to which you’re so devoted is relatively new. There haven’t been any studies done to determine its effectiveness. Doesn’t that give you pause?
Teacher: First of all, there was a study done.
Admin: Paid for by the company that created the program.
Teacher: Nevertheless. There was a study. Also, it’s Common Core aligned.
Admin: Well, they say it is. In bold colors on the cover of every book. But that doesn’t mean it actually–
Teacher: Yes it does (puts fingers in ears and hums).
So what’s a teacher to do? What they’ve always done when their bosses make bad decisions. Nod their heads, pretend they don’t mind being treated like a cog in a machine, swallow, once again, that bitter taste of disrespect, and then do what’s best for students and hope they don’t get busted.
If you get fired for doing that, at least you can hold your head high, knowing you did what was best for kids. It beats getting fired for blindly following dumb mandates made by people who don’t even have enough respect for the professionals they’ve hired to let them do their jobs.