A Different Take on Fidelity

Fidelity is a hot topic across all educational arenas right now.  It is essential, according to educational leaders.  Without it, it seems that no strategy, program, or approach is guaranteed to be successful.  What we do should look the same, sound the same, and have the same results no matter what school or classroom we teach from.  The environment should be controlled the instruction meticulously planned and predictable.  The responsibility for maintaining fidelity lies primarily with classroom teachers and interventionists, not with the people who make decisions regarding programming, scheduling, and academic interruptions or with those who evaluate educators on their fidelity to programs and systems.

But here’s the problem.  Classrooms, and schools in general, are not static, closed systems set up for fidelity.  We deal with unexpected interruptions all the time.  We have limited budgets and resources and overcrowded classrooms.  We are understaffed and short on substitutes.  We have students exhibiting chronic absenteeism and high mobility, who are absent and/or mobile for reasons beyond their and our control.  We have students who are missing much of the instruction that is given, even while they are present at school, due to mental health and/or behavioral challenges.  We have, for goodness’ sake, a global pandemic that is compromising learning environments and limiting the depths of student/teacher connections.  And again, we as classroom teachers and interventionists are responsible to manage all of these things and practice fidelity at the same time.

So while fidelity is great in theory, it is often unrealistic and frequently frustrating when it is applied to practice.  Fidelity assumes consistent attendance.  Fidelity assumes low rates of mobility.  Fidelity assumes there is not a global health crisis.  Fidelity assumes adequately-staffed schools.  Fidelity assumes that students stay in the same school or district for the duration of their educational careers, and that their teachers do the same.  Fidelity assumes that teachers will not be interrupted or called upon to flex to changing circumstances.

If we are always operating in the interest of control and fidelity, what happens to the students and educators who don’t fit within the limitations fidelity imposes?

So what about our learners living in poverty, who transfer schools and/or districts based on frequent changes to their housing and family employment circumstances?  Or our learners who are experiencing trauma, and are only accessing a fraction of what we are teaching with fidelity because that is all that their working memories can handle?  What about our students struggling silently with depression and anxiety, who need to make it through the day okay before they make it through it with fidelity?  And what about our educators, who are leaving the profession at historic rates because of unrealistic expectations and high-stakes workplaces?  Or who want lives and families of their own?  Or have ideas and skills beyond the limits of the prescribed lessons fidelity calls for?  How does fidelity impact them?

There is, to me, what seems to be an unreasonable emphasis on controlling all aspects of the educational environment when we talk about fidelity.  Is this the kind of control that we can achieve, or that is even desirable to achieve?  Is it wise to take a control-based approach when we work with humans?  And if we are always operating in the interest of control and fidelity, what happens to the students and educators who don’t fit within the limitations fidelity imposes?

These are the Underdogs–those who do not follow the prescribed path, who deviate from the norms of our fidelity-focused system, and who struggle to fit in with program-driven models.  They ARE capable, they ARE intelligent, and they CAN achieve and perform at high levels.  And they are DESPERATE for someone to think differently.