High-Quality Teaching = High-Fidelity Teaching

February 8, 2023

A recent article by Jim Knight inspired an in-depth conversation on fidelity at the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) out of UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Our interest was piqued, given our work within the field of implementation science and practice and the role of fidelity in K-12 education. As we try to balance our own work between science and practice, the field of education also should find a balance between the art and science of teaching. While we agree with the points in “High-Quality Teaching > High-Fidelity Teaching,” we would propose High-Quality Teaching = High-Fidelity Teaching.

Let’s look at how fidelity is quite a complex concept.

The Problem with Fidelity: There are several misconceptions about how it is measured and how the data is used.

“Stressing fidelity diminishes teachers”: Yes, and...we find this is because leaders in education misunderstand the purpose of fidelity data collection and don’t involve teachers in the process.

The true meaning of fidelity data is not a “gotcha” for teachers but rather a way to support teachers with implementation. In other words, the measurement of fidelity is a ‘system’ measure of how well the district supports the professionalism and development of teaching staff. When implementation teams collect and examine fidelity data, they can examine challenges to utilizing practices and addressing the needs of staff. Fidelity data can only diminish teachers if we don’t involve them in developing the measurement tools/process. By including teachers in collecting fidelity data, we can also engage in conversations around adaptations, instructional practices, and student needs.

“One size doesn’t fit all”: Yes, and…context matters.

However, that does not mean that the core components of the program or strategy cannot be done with fidelity. We can still adapt to meet the needs of the students, and this is where the art of teaching is critical. There are frameworks such as FRAME that allow for the tracking and documentation of adaptations to evidence-based practices. By monitoring and discussing the need for the adaptations, classrooms are consistent in their implementation, and equal access is provided.

“The checklist becomes the focus”: Yes, and…this could be important to teachers new to the field or the content.

Absolutely, that may be necessary for teachers new to the concept or field. And then the question is, are you measuring fidelity to practice or fidelity to process? Is the selected program or practice matched accurately with student needs? Go back to your selection process!!! Particularly when we have new teachers who may or may not have a deep knowledge of content yet. They must follow the practice or program with fidelity. If not, they can unintentionally interrupt the instructional process and create ‘bad’ habits. Doing something with fidelity allows us to learn and deepen our instructional best practices.

“Finding a Balance on Fidelity: Teachers are also critical to this process.”

“Listen to teachers”: Yes!!!!

Involve them from the beginning in the selection of the program or practice. Give them a voice at the table in the planning of implementation and how it will be measured. Teachers should be involved in examining the data collected to discuss the need for additional support and adaptations. As Knight says, let's ask them to set the direction for professional growth. We would also add setting the direction for implementation and support needed from school and district leaders.

“Encourage teachers to adapt strategies”: Yes!!!

Teachers should adapt strategies with intention based on the needs of their students, preferably before using the practice. This should be built into professional learning communities, collaborative time with colleagues, and professional learning opportunities. It is estimated that teachers make, on average, 1500 decisions a day based on student needs. However, making on-the-fly adaptations is often a result of teacher cognitive overload (Blackley, Redmond & Peel, 2021). Adaptations can be made while maintaining the fidelity of the program or practice but need to be done with intentionality, data-based decision-making, and consistency across teachers.

“Focus on students”: Yes!!!

From selecting the program or practice through full implementation, students should always be the focus. Adapting often occurs for teacher needs and not student needs. And who can blame them with teacher shortages… Student need should be the focus of all adaptations.

Encouraging teachers to use their professional judgment to adapt recommended strategies to hit a student-focused goal might not represent perfect fidelity, but it should lead to our children learning more. Sounds like high-quality instruction to me.”

Yes, and...go back to our title!


Blackley, C., Redmond, P., & Peel, K. (2021). Teacher decision-making in the classroom: the influence of cognitive load and teacher affect. Journal of Education for Teaching, 47(4), 548-561. doi:10.1080/02607476.2021.1902748