Teaching With the F-word: Fidelity

I sat down today to write an entirely different post.  For the most part, I plan exactly what I’m going to write about months in advance.  But I kept typing and deleting, typing and deleting.  My heart just isn’t in that topic today.  So soon, I’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming.  But I have something else entirely on my mind I cannot shake.   And that is this often-heard phrase “teaching with fidelity.” 

I don’t know about you, but that phrase–and the F-word in particular–makes me twitch.  Actually, it makes me want to scream and throw things, if I’m being completely honest.  

In this new (but familiar) era of mandated, boxed curriculum, which has been repeated over decades but never once worked (Review of Education, 2022, US Dept of Education, 2008, The Reading Teacher, 1998), many of us are being told to follow a script “with fidelity.”  For people my age and above, it’s deja vu.  I saw the tail end of this 25 years ago in my student teaching years, and it was a popular movement about a decade into my career.  And it’s here again.  

Let’s take a look at the word fidelity.

Google’s Oxford dictionary comes up with three definitions for this F-word:

  1. faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support
  2. sexual faithfulness to a spouse or partner.
  3. the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced

Obviously, we can rule out definition #2.  It completely doesn’t fit our context.  

Which leaves us with #1 and #3.  WHY, in a profession where the sole purpose is to help human children reach their full potential, do we gravitate to definition #3?  That’s exactly the outdated, simplistic factory model definition of school we don’t want.  Look at your district’s version of their portrait of a graduate.  It will likely list things like critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity.  Not one of those attributes can be developed through definition #3.   This definition doesn’t fit our context either.

Why isn’t definition #1 the mainstream definition when it comes to literacy instruction for students? Why doesn’t teaching with fidelity mean teaching with faithfulness to student learning, demonstrated by continuing support?  In other words, shouldn’t responsive teaching be how we teach?  

Let’s explore some of the implications of teaching with fidelity, as definition #3 spells out.   

Because in districts across the country, #3 is the only working definition. 

At the most basic level, if a boxed curriculum is implemented with fidelity across a district, then it assumes that every student in every grade level in every school needs the exact same thing.  It means that there are no nuances:  everyone has the same background knowledge, the same prior knowledge, the same vocabulary, the same ability level, the same motivation, the same interests.  Which leads to incredibly robotic teaching.  

I can’t even think of a word to precisely describe how very ludicrous this is.  It dismisses all we’ve learned about culturally responsive teaching.

Teaching a boxed curriculum with fidelity also completely demoralizes teachers and decenters students.

All the hard work we’ve put in to learn and to perfect our craft in order to be most responsive to kids’ individualized needs is ignored.  Instead, the curriculum writers who have never and will never meet our students is prioritized.  Curriculum that throws in everything and the kitchen sink in order to appeal to more buyers (and is therefore way too much and also totally inadequate all at the same time) ranks higher than teacher expertise.  

What does all this mean?

That because of a lack of responsiveness, even fewer student needs will be met.

You might be thinking of a very often used statistic right now, the one that says but we know that we can meet 95% of reader’s needs with the right approach.  Well, that’s actually not true.  Professor of Education at Stanford Dr. Claude Goldenberg explains this in his interview on The Science of Reading Podcast (Season 7, episode 1).  He says that  “Yes, we know how to get 95% of kids to a basic level of word recognition skills in 1st or 2nd grade, but anything beyond that is a misrepresentation that people are believing.”⁣   

A basic level of word recognition skills is not synonymous with real reading.

You might then bring up another often-used statistic, around NAEP scores.

The infamous journalist Emily Hanford loves to bring this one up.   Hanford and others often say that 2/3 of our nation’s fourth graders can’t read.  It’s a pretty common statistic shared across media outlets.  You’ll find it everywhere.

In reality, the category of basic actually means “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”  (Nation’s Report Card)  Meaning “basic” is actually “grade level.”  Partial mastery (which is not defined) of grade level isn’t super great, but it certainly doesn’t mean kids can’t read at all, which is how the headlines make it sound.  The latest data we have show that  “Sixty-three percent of fourth-grade students performed at or above the  NAEP Basic level in 2022.”    (Nations Report Card

63% were at or above grade level.  Meaning that the majority of our kids–that 2/3–can read.  Pretty significant, considering the huge increase in the population of English language learners entering our schools (and also assessed by NAEP) in recent years.  Or considering the level of transience that many schools across the nation contend with.

Do we have work to do?  Absolutely. 63% isn’t enough.  

But here’s the thing.  Just like you, I got into this line of work to meet the needs of kids.  To make an impact.  I have an extremely personal reason for this mission, and I have vowed to always grow in my practice precisely so that I could carry out that mission.  There is someone very important in my life who did not have someone there for him when he needed it the most, and the education system failed him.  He was in that 37% that truly struggled.  

Young boy looking overwhelmed with school.
Image from Wavebreakmedia via Depositphotos

What he needed was not something some curriculum writers put together that would promise the same exact results to everyone who used it.  He needed an extremely knowledgeable teacher.  One that would truly understand who he was, what his barriers were, what mental roadblocks and trauma he carried with him, and what his interests were.  He needed someone to motivate him.  To cheer him on.  To be relentless about finding what worked, and to adjust if it didn’t.  He needed someone to care.  None of this comes from a box.  Nor does it come from a computerized program.  

I’m still here, fighting for these kids, and I will not stop.  I hope you’re with me.  

This far into my career, with almost 25 years of teaching, learning, growing, and developing expertise, I am absolutely not putting it all aside to follow a prescribed set of directions written by people who don’t know my students.  

I’m not sure what your own “why” is, but I’d bet money that you, too, wanted to truly impact kids’ learning.  I’d venture to guess that you didn’t sign up for this to just be handed a box of materials to read aloud.  You didn’t sign up to be a robot.

Right now, many of us feel completely disempowered.  Disregarded.  Dismissed.

I get it.  I feel it too. Heavily.   Especially today, as all of these mandates have officially been put in place.

But we must remember the scripts are just a tool.   Some even have really great, helpful parts to them.  Today’s versions are better than they were decades ago. They aren’t the end all, be all, though.  In a few years’ time, they’ll prove to be ineffective for meeting student needs; time has shown us that they always do, and they’ll go away, leaving politicians to push for the next silver bullet in a box.

But you and I, as knowledgeable teachers who know our kids best, we’ll still be here.  Doing what has always proven to work:  teaching responsively. Because we know that good teaching doesn’t come in a package. It comes from us.

Sure, we can pull what’s good from the box, but we’ll know better than to let it be our only tool. Let’s not disregard our own expertise, as the powers that be are doing. Let’s not dismiss what we know about real learning–which is not robotic, scripted call and response.

So stick with it.  Please.  Kids need us.  Especially that 37%.  We can’t give up on them. Let’s change the working definition of the F-word in schools today.  Instead of teaching with fidelity to a boxed curriculum, let’s teach with fidelity to our students

Know a teacher friend who’s feeling discouraged by the F-word?  Share this post!  

By the way, do you have to fit in a boxed curriculum but know there’s so much more to literacy instruction?  Unsure how you’d ever fit it all in?  Access my FREE schedule guide, where I share 5 creative ways to truly fit it all in, even if your core lessons take a ton of time.  It’s possible, and it’s easier than you might think!

And if you could you use a thinking partner to help keep responsive teaching in place, don’t hesitate to reach out!  Send me a DM on Instagram or shoot me an email and we can hop on a call together!  


  1. Melissa

    All of this Michelle! The money being used for programs, boxed and online, should be invested in our teachers!

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