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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Is Fidelity Always Seen as the New Four-Letter Word?

By George Toman — January 05, 2020 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by George Toman, an educator serving Nebraska schools as a regional support lead with Nebraska Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (NeMTSS).

A school district decided to purchase a very comprehensive program designed to increase math scores among its elementary students. All teachers were trained in the program and began using it immediately. After a few months, some teachers and administrators began questioning the new math program and poorly implemented some of its key features. Leaders, after hearing from the grapevine of the frustrations, started talking to another company about a new program—a program that was “state of the art” and “meaningful to teachers.”

Coaches in the district knew that the initial program wasn’t being used as directed, but leadership was content that purchasing the new program (one that was advertised very well to them) was necessary. So, the formerly new program was abandoned for another one, and the teachers were trained in the new program despite their evident frustration at the sudden change. A common frustration from many was the lack of diligence toward sticking to one thing and making it better, rather than trying to find the silver bullet for increasing student achievement. Some veteran educators voiced their opinion to other colleagues: “Here we go again,” they said to each other as they left the teachers’ lounge.

Sound familiar? For our purposes, this can be dubbed “Educator ADD” or the inability of an educator to stay focused on a particular program/strategy that ultimately leads to ineffective practices. In the case above, the program shifts were very quick and not analyzed appropriately. The next “shiny ribbon” program came along, and with the lack of scores as a catalyst, people bought into it assuming that would fix their problems. When all is said and done, teachers and other leaders were more frustrated than content: Why couldn’t they spend time making the initial new program better, rather than using resources to buy an entirely new program and start the process over again?

Fidelity is a great way to prevent “Educator ADD,” the very thing that leads to many frustrations in educators today. What exactly is fidelity, and how can it be used in schools? This week’s guest blog addresses this very topic.

What is Fidelity?
Fidelity is the extent to which a program or skill is utilized as directed by its author. A fidelity check is a process or activity to determine if fidelity was met using measurable data. For example, if a behavior program requires that classroom expectations are posted at the front of the classroom for all students to see with relative ease, a fidelity check may include a principal doing a walk-through and tallying which rooms met that expectation. One of the important features of fidelity is that it informs professional development and is not (primarily) a tool used for appraisal purposes. This means that fidelity encourages shared leadership among educators without the primary threat of punitive action—in other words, it is a way to achieve group accountability and mutual trust.

What Fidelity Is Not ...
Implementation fidelity is not an appraisal process. It is a common mistake among educators to use implementation data and processes to critique, and sometimes punish, other colleagues for not doing something correctly. Though implementation failure could lead to personnel changes in an organization, leaders must understand that the purpose of ensuring implementation fidelity is not to criticize colleagues but rather to empower them. Good change can only happen when people understand the reality of their current situation, have the vision to know where they must go, and muster the courage to put that self-reflection to action. When used properly, processes ensuring fidelity empower educators to take that courageous step in improving their own practice for the cause of meeting our students’ needs.

Benefits of Fidelity

1) Fidelity forces self-reflection of the school’s leadership.

2) Fidelity data helps drive professional-development decisions.

3) Fidelity processes encourage educator accountability and foster trust among teams.

Fidelity data encourages self-reflection, particularly of school leaders
When fidelity checks are used, the data collected from that activity leads to an opportunity for reflection. For example, when a principal realizes that a particular program or strategy is not being implemented as intended from its authors, the act of exploring “why” this is the case usually starts in the form of self-reflection. Depending on the quality of the leader, this self-reflection can be the catalyst for good change—both at an individual and collective level.

To illustrate this point, let’s expand on the above example a little more. When a program or strategy is not implemented as designed, there could be many reasons why this happened. It could have been due to a lack of a good strategy in implementing the activity. Other times, it may be due to issues in resource allocation. Sometimes, it is due to a lack of leadership. In most cases, it is a combination of things that lead to poor implementation practices. A good leader would reflect on all possible scenarios (including personal leadership) and begin action steps toward improving the issue at hand. If the conversation of improvement begins with “what can I do better as a leader,” rather than initially looking for an outward source to blame, the opportunity to enact appropriate change is greatly enhanced.

Fidelity data helps drive professional-development decisions
Let’s assume a school district paid a national speaker to present at the beginning of the year in-service on student engagement. The speaker provided multiple tools for engagement and handouts for easy reference. To ensure that this in-service would carry over into the school year, the principal informed her staff that she would like to have colleagues observe one another at least once before the next staff-development day and specifically watch for strategies shared from the in-service. At the staff-development day, teachers noted that they saw evidence of some new strategies being used; however, they were honest in that they could use more assistance in how to implement these strategies in their classroom more frequently.

This fidelity check from teachers provided evidence of two things. First, it gave proof that new strategies of engagement were happening in classrooms since the beginning of year activity. However, this fidelity check also gave the principal evidence that her staff needed more support in implementing these strategies on a frequent basis. Therefore, to meet the needs of her teachers and students, the principal used the next in-service opportunity to discuss how these strategies can be used more frequently by putting teachers into small groups and do breakouts on brainstorming ways to increase student-engagement strategies. She also allowed staff to share their successes with the new strategies and the barriers they encountered in the process.

This is one example of the many that could be used to remedy the situation, but it gives insight into how fidelity data helps school leaders form their professional development to truly meet the needs of their staff.

Fidelity processes encourage educator accountability and mutual trust among educators
When done properly, the processes that encourage fidelity of implementation also encourage healthy accountability practices in a school system. Accountability cannot happen without healthy conflict and trust among team members. Good fidelity practices create an opportunity for safe conversations to occur among teams, which, in turn, creates opportunities for good conflict centered on improving professional practice. Good conflict, in many cases, increases trust among team members because educators understand that their opinions will be accepted, valued, and used in a team decisionmaking process. Though the team may not agree with the end decision, all will know that their opinions were heard and considered at the table. This, in turn, builds authentic relationships among people—a key characteristic in any high-functioning group.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.