Lessons Learned In Combat

The F Word

There is a new “f” word being tossed around a lot among my colleagues these days, and its cringe-worthiness is tantamount to that “other” f word that some of us have been known to utter once or twice [daily]: fidelity.

I would count myself as one of the “cringers” whenever the word fidelity is uttered, even when I am the one uttering it. Most often, I think, it is used in reference to those nasty, money- and morale-sucking boxed reading programs that I likened to crack-cocaine in my last post. As in, “It is important to frequently assess whether or not teachers are implementing this program with fidelity.” Or, more ubiquitously, “Fidelity of implementation is an essential part of any RTI program” (and look! The National Center on Response to Intervention has *kindly* created an RTI “Integrity Rubric” and worksheet that you can access here: http://www.rti4success.org/resourcetype/rti-integrity-rubric-and-worksheet/). When I think of the term fidelity as it is most often used in education, my natural body’s response is to begin sweating and turning all shades of red, because all I can think about is how fidelity is so closely tied to accountability, which is so closely tied to the feelings of frustration and helplessness I felt as a classroom teacher when my students blew off their high-stakes tests every year. And then I get pissed off all over again about how NCLB has contributed to the enormous cultural shift in how educators are regarded in this country, and that when I declared my major as an undergrad almost twenty years ago, I most certrainly didn’t think that I was signing up for this.


There are instances where I have come across a teacher saying that this or that “doesn’t work” (myself included; let’s be perfectly honest here), and I sometimes think to myself, “Well, have you tried implementing the process/framework/plan/model to fidelity?” I have even, shockingly enough, said this to some people. And then I have braced myself for the inevitable evil eye.

Because, truly–there is a part of me that does believe that one cannot truly judge whether something is or is not effective unless it has been used/implemented/attempted in the way that it was intended to be. In the school I currently work in, several teachers have embraced the Daily 5 model of literacy and have had much success with it. (If you are unfamiliar with the model, check this out: http://www.thedailycafe.com/.) There are others who have tried it with limited success and have declared that it just “doesn’t work.” Well, of course: not every model or framework or process will work for everyone. But I can say with the utmost of confidence that those who claim that this particular model doesn’t work are not really using it fully in the way it was intended; in other words, they are not using it to fidelity. *cringe*

Not that there is a set scope and sequence for the Daily 5 model; there is not. However, there are many different components to the model, all of which are grounded in research and/or evidence gathered from the authors’ 25 years of teaching experience. How would one know that something truly does not work for her or her students if she hasn’t used all of the components together in the way they were intended to be used? It would be like me complaining that the South Beach Diet “doesn’t work,” (and there are plenty of people I know personally for whom it did work) even though I know full well I snuck some fruit in before the first “phase” of the diet was over. OK, so  maybe I snuck in a few Chips Ahoy cookies as well. Do you see what I mean, though? I wasn’t implementing that particular diet to fidelity–so how could I truly judge its effectiveness?

I have been tossing and turning for many nights grappling with this most emotional of “f” words, and have turned it over and over in my head for months. My husband is probably thisclose to filing for divorce. So I put the question to all of you: Is fidelity the new “f” word? Am I missing something really important here? Or are you equally confused/conflicted about the term? Please share your candid thoughts, and feel free to solicit some input from your colleagues as well. Because I am desperate for a good night’s sleep here.

2 thoughts on “The F Word”

  1. Do I “cringe” when I hear the word fidelity? No, actually, I smile! For years and years I have witnessed many a teacher quickly “blame” the child and/or the parent when progress is not being made when, in many cases, not all, progress is not being made because of the lack of fidelity to explicit, instructional practices. For some this is absolutely a scary word, but for those teachers who tend to be extremely reflective of their teaching practices, this term can be reassuring that they are doing all that they can. As for the public outcry against teachers and the microscope we are under day in and day out, implementing ____ with fidelity can act as supportive evidence that we are doing our job. No one gives teachers, all right, almost no one, so teaching “fidelity” can be to our advantage.


  2. Shawna, I just found your site today, while riding along to Dallas. I can’t wait to read! (although most of it will be a foreign language to me.). I was drawn to this post because of the f-word. I have to write a paper about bulling in schools. I have done some research and when programs are implemented with “fidelity” they appear to be more effective. If you are taking requests, can you write a commentary about bullying is schools? What is your experience, do you think we need to start prevention programs earlier? What about the role of bibliotherapy in younger students? Role modeling for bystanders? Sorry for any typos. On the phone, in the car. I know this is a literacy blog!


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