Getting Off the Educational Hamster Wheel

In education, we frequently reference the buzzwords data and fidelity. But how much of it are we collecting, and when are we using it? Last month I was talking with my teacher friends who, like most teachers, felt like a hamster in a running wheel. No matter how hard they worked, they were not getting where they wanted to go with students. They attributed this feeling to being asked to do too many things with not enough time. So, when our Center asks your staff to collect fidelity data, it may be a step you skip to keep the peace and give the gift of time. But here is the rub: research shows teacher job satisfaction increases and student outcomes improve when schools focus on fidelity.

Here’s why: typically, districts adopt curriculum and programs, provide initial training and ask teachers to throw out the old materials and begin implementing the new. The assumption is teachers will implement these programs well but what usually happens is they pick and choose what they like, continue using old materials that fit their teaching style, and are unclear about school priorities for instructional practices. With little or no attention to fidelity, a school rarely implements something well. Consequently, student outcomes do not improve which leads us to adopt new materials and start the cycle all over again. This process wastes precious time and money, but more importantly, it leads to innovation fatigue in teachers and resentment for the competing demands we place on their instruction. Teachers may approach new initiatives with limited investment because they’ve seen things change so often. They’re waiting for the pendulum to swing.

When we focus on fidelity, problem-solving teams access information that informs professional development and identifies barriers to implementation. Rather than adding something new, schools channel their resources into coaching to ensure the current innovation is well-implemented. We polish what we’ve started, rather than throw the program out or layer another on top of it. Staying on the course allows teachers the time and opportunity to hone their craft and feel confident and competent in delivering the materials. It also sends the message that a district or school is confidently invested and focused. Most importantly, we guarantee our students access to high-quality instruction and content and can offer students equitable opportunities to learn and grow.

This month we will be focusing on fidelity with our project schools because we know that spinning in the never-ending cycle of program change will never get us to where we want to go.


Carol Ewen, MA, EdS
Director of School Mental Health Programs
Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development
University of Montana | College of Health
[email protected]

About the Author

Carol Ewen

Carol Ewen
Licensed School Psychologist

I have worked at the local and state level developing and implementing school mental health interventions for the past 23 years. I am currently the Director of School Mental Health Programs at the University of Montana’s Center for Children, Families, and Workforce Development.

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The current Early Identification System model includes:

teacher and student-report assessment tools
A dashboard system in which
these data are shared with schools and linked to a menu of evidence-based interventions that schools can choose from to implement
A dashboard system in
which these data are shared with schools and linked to a menu of evidence-based interventions that schools can choose from to implement

Web-based professional development and coaching to support the implementation of selected interventions

Tools to monitor
the progress and effectiveness of interventions selected