Sunday, March 27, 2011

Curriculum Fidelity: A Critical Examination

To complete assignments for 625 and 626, I have developed and written my own curriculum complete with lesson plans. It has been an energizing and empowering experience that gives me confidence in my educational skills. However, recent experiences implementing a curriculum that I did not write has me questioning and pondering curriculum fidelity. It is not that I dislike the curriculum in question- students have responded well to it and it is a great model for pacing and flow of lesson plans. But there have been instances where curriculum fidelity has been difficult. For instance, one session has four activities planned in a one-hour time span. Even with adults this would be difficult, but I am working with 7th graders! In this instance, curriculum fidelity was not met and I had to cut two of the activities (activities that I really like) due to time constraints. This experience (along with a few others) got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of curriculum fidelity. This post raises more questions than answers. It explores, questions, and wonders about the importance of curriculum fidelity.

The Basics
In short, curriculum fidelity is “the degree to which a lesson, program, or curriculum is implemented according to the original intention of the developers” (Gilbert & Sawyer, 2000). Achinstein and Ogawa (2006) add that fidelity is a term used by administrators and teachers to describe strict adherence to the text, pacing guides, and teacher scripts associated with a certain curriculum.

The advantages of curriculum fidelity are numerous and heavily emphasized among educators. For educators (or whoever is implementing the curriculum), fidelity means less work! If my lesson plan is already written, rationale has already been argued, and activities are pre-determined, I don’t have to stress each night about what I’m doing the next day (or question if it will work). For evidence-based curriculums that have proven to be effective, curriculum fidelity means that the facilitator can be confident in the quality of the curriculum and its ability to achieve goals and objectives. Other advantages include guidance for inexperienced teachers, equity across educational settings, and coherence and collaboration among teachers (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006).

Curriculum fidelity raises some challenges that speak to instructor autonomy and individuality. At its worst, curriculum fidelity demands conformity over quality. Sue, a teacher struggling with curriculum fidelity, says, “What I’m feeling from the district is that teaching and education are not important. What’s important is the program that we’re using and following it, and individual style and teacher’s knowledge, and their abilities and their individuality should not come into play” (Achinstein and Ogaway, 2006). Curriculum fidelity assumes that all educators have the same knowledge and skills to implement the curriculum as it was intended. If an instructor writes their own curriculum, they can tailor it to emphasize their own teaching strengths and weaknesses. When using a curriculum written by others, instructors must put aside their own preferences for activities/methods and implement the lessons as instructed. The danger in this is that lack of investment in material may cause instructors to be less energetic and effective than if they had been using a curriculum that they were invested in.

Special Considerations for Sexuality Education
Curriculum fidelity is often talked about in terms of evidence-based programs. For programs that have shown to have positive results (in behavior, attitudes, or knowledge), curriculum fidelity is the only way to ensure that these results will be the same for all implementations. For sexuality education, this component deserves more attention. Let’s take the examples of a program that produces higher math scores on a standardized test and a program that produces greater frequency of condom use. The math program is called MathWorks! and the condom program is called Put it On! (work with me, people).

Scenario A:  I am a math teacher teaching MathWorks! and I notice that yes, my students are learning how to answer test questions about math but I don’t like the teaching methods that are employed because they emphasize test-taking over understanding core principles. In this situation, what is more important: raising test scores to secure funding for my district or teaching math in a way that I feel is most effective?

Scenario B: I am a sex ed teacher implementing Put it On!. My students seem to be developing positive attitudes toward condom use but I don’t really like some of the activities in the program. However, this program is evidence-based and I am told that if I implement it correctly, my students will use condoms with greater frequency. What is more important: increasing condom use or adapting the program to my preferences?

In both scenarios, the desired outcomes are present. In both scenarios, the teacher feels that the lesson plans and activities could use some changes. Are the results of one program more important than the other? Does one program deserve fidelity more than the other? 

Final Thoughts
As I said before, all of my pondering and questioning about curriculum fidelity has yielded few answers. I respect the people who write evidence-based curriculum but also empathize with instructors who feel it limits their autonomy and individuality. When I wrote the final section, Special Considerations for Sexuality Education, I was intending to say that yes! - condom use is more important than math scores and fidelity to sexuality curricula that affect real life decisions is more important than fidelity to curricula that are intended to raise test scores. But now I’m not so sure. Thinking about this subject and writing this blog made me re-evaluate a lot of my thoughts about education and curriculum-writing. I’m looking forward to other people’s thoughts about and experiences with curriculum fidelity. Thanks for reading!

Kate Randall
March 27, 2011


Achinstein, B., & Ogawa, R. T. (2006). (In)fidelity: What the resistance of new teachers reveals about professional principles ad prescriptive educational policies. Harvard Educational Review, 76(1), 30-63.

Gilbert, G.G., & Sawyer, R.G. (2000). Health education: Creating strategies for school and community health. Boston: Jones & Bartless.


  1. Someone (a non-academic) once shared with me a quote that has being resonating with my experience in regard to curriculum development versus curriculum implementation: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” I’m sure someone academic said this, but I didn’t learn about this through them, and so I won’t be citing the original source here. (Just my head-nod to that quote. In theory, I should be motivated to look up who originally stated those words. In practice … not so much.)

    In any case, I feel as though this is the ultimate rift between curriculum development and curriculum implementation. It is my personal opinion that curriculum development necessarily organizes around the person who is creating the curriculum.

    Someone does a host of research as to why the subject needs to be taught, and then based upon that research, the author chooses a specific activity that they feel would be most appropriate for implementing the learning that they have researched to be important.

    There is a great deal, in my opinion, of subjectivity in curriculum development because of this factor. Although the rationale for teaching something may be fairly “universal,” the ways in which something can be taught or evaluated effectively are numerous. And yet with developed curricula, there is only one option for how to teach the subject matter provided. I think it is a massive failure, personally.

    I know that this is strong language to use, but I truly feel that good education means taking the rationale, taking the subject matter, AND taking the facilitators strengths/weaknesses into account before something is taught. Theory about education, in my opinion, means nothing if the actual educator themselves is incapable of conveying material within the structures of the methodology prescribed.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that educators should take educational methodology into account. They should challenge themselves to teach in ways that have been ‘proven’ to be effective. However, there are times when a person is not suited to certain teaching methodologies, and should have room to change the method so as to encourage learning. There are also times when “science” does not make room for methodologies that don’t fit within the paradigms of the privileged who are able to “prove” the effectiveness of methodologies.

    Because, as far as I understand, the pre-fab curricula are all evaluated with teachers who have been trained to use the curriculum effectively. Many teachers do not have that privilege, and many teachers, in that case (backed by the science of course) may give their students better education by taking the rationale and creating activities that work both with student learning and facilitator strength in mind.

    And so I think, personally, that it comes down to being mindful. Being mindful of one’s own strengths as an educator, being mindful of the strengths of certain teaching methodologies, and being mindful of all the other factors involved in good education (time, demographic, etc).

    But, this is a fantastically thought provoking piece, Kate. I thank you for bringing it up!

  2. Kate, what an interesting topic! I feel it somewhat echoes Colby's blog in that these are very important questions we will be dealing with sooner rather than later. I totally agree with Becca in the fact that the ways in which individuals can learn and benefit from education are fruitful. We all know by now that different people learn in different ways and that more than one path to success exists. After speaking with a variety of educators, I am starting to question how strict schools are concerning curricula. Obviously, schools will have certain guidelines and expectations, and an educator is not permitted to just teach whatever they wish, how they wish. That's a given. When talking with my mother, who is a 6th grade language arts teacher (i.e. English and reading) at a middle school in Lancaster, PA, she told me that the faculty doesn't really use curricula. Each year, the team of language arts teachers gets together and goes over what they will be teaching that year to the students (based on the district's requirements). However, each teacher chooses their own activities and methods of teaching the particular topic at hand. I am wondering if this is typical of teaching at a public school? This situation seems ideal to me: knowing what you have to cover in a certain time period and then being given the general freedom to teach in ways you know best and in ways that you believe will benefit the learners as much as possible. Of course, the teachers at this school are observed a couple of times each year and evaluated by the principal or vice principal to make sure the teachers and classes are on track. I am wondering if this is common amongst educators' experiences....

    Kate, your mention of the importance of test scores also has me intrigued. I have heard many a debate over whether or not students' test scores are a direct reflection upon the effectiveness of the teacher. Here is an article that I thought relevant:

    I enjoyed reading the varied student opinions- let me know what you guys and gals think!

  3. This topic has become increasingly important to me as well and I am so glad that you bring it up Kate! I have begun to weigh the pros and cons of using someone else's curriculum vs. my own. I have a learned a great deal from using a pre-existing curriculum and it has enhanced my understanding of developing curriculum pieces and lesson plan consistency. However, I have experienced and have noticed others experiencing a deep conflict between the work they do with pre-existing curriculum and this program. I think one of the most concerning "cons" of using pre-existing curriculum is what I would call "inevitable burn out." After doing these lesson plans over and over again, it only takes a short time to realize how taxing time restraints and emphasizing certain activities while dropping others is monotonous and boring. I know that this is something I have struggled with. During my fieldwork experience, we’ve only done about 5 out of the 9 lesson plans and we keep doing them repeatedly; I have quickly gotten sick of condoms and STIs. As a self-identified visual and experiential learner, I now understand the importance of changing things up and being creative. And pre-existing, evidence-based curricula sometimes doesn’t allow for this. This can be devastating to educators, as well as students. Writing my own curriculum for class has been a great experience in learning a new topic and activities; I would not have had that experience if I used someone else’s curriculum.

    On the other hand, I understand the convenience and importance of pre-existing curricula, especially in certain settings. I know that I am very grateful that I have not had to develop an all new curriculum for my practicum and that it is doing what research says it should be doing: teaching college students the knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to safe sex including barrier methods, STIs, and communication skills. Especially after I realized that this is not a topic I am extremely fond of, I haven’t had to do tedious research that I don’t enjoy or get much out of. I would often prefer the pre-existing curriculum in this instance.

    So I guess I’m left with quite a quandary…loving the convenience and seeing the results of research-based pre-existing curriculum while feeling a need for the knowledge and skills learned in creating an original curriculum to really feel like an effective educator.

  4. It sounds like sticking to the old LP (lesson plan) isn't always working out. Perhaps educators can benefit from some curriculum infidelity or polygamy? I do not have an answer to what approach is better when providing a curriculum to students, but I do believe that all educators should recognize that there is no one effective way to educate. A new or old curriculum? A blend or combination of several lesson plans? One standard method of instruction or activity to rule them all?Your job is to choose carefully and make it work!

    The most important information to consider before deciding on a lesson plan to use, if you are offered such flexibility, would be to examine the population to determine which type of activity may be best suited for the group. Educators must also decide if using the lesson plan provided verses incorporating exercises from other curriculum's or editing the activities that exist in the current one will be important to the educational experience they will provide. Ultimately, as educators our focus is on achieving a particular learning goal and the lesson plan should simply be tailored to match that, at least in theory. In my opinion the best approach an educator can take when determining how to operate a curriculum is to be purposeful when conducting the lesson and with interactions to the audience. Do your best to take the time and listen, learn from students, collect data, observe and implement the information in ways that seem relevant to your target population.

  5. When I was growing up in the Island (Puerto Rico) we had paternity classes (covers sexual topics) in high school that followed an evidence-based curriculum. Since I began the Human Sexuality program I have thought about this curriculum and now have the tools to evaluate its pros and cons. The information was limited, bias, and negative in nature but according to the government it was effective. Becca wrote in her response “Theory about education, in my opinion, means nothing if the actual educator themselves is incapable of conveying material within the structures of the methodology prescribed.” I completely agree and this was the major issue with the curriculum. Not only was the information incomplete but the teachers had no training around sexuality topics. They usually went through the information very quickly, used outdated materials, and did not allow time for questions. I remember having only one teacher that actually took the time to create brochures with updated information, relevant images, and stayed after school to talk about sexuality. This was not in the curriculum that she had to follow but she was very effective and could convey the information in a very neutral manner. Curriculum fidelity in this case did more harm than good until a teacher found a different way to educate students about their sexuality. The results were astonishing and she was asked to evaluate the current curriculum and to edit it. The opportunity to get these results would have been lost if the administration would have not allowed such changes. It seems that curriculum development should be evidence based but the implementation of such curriculum should allow teachers/ educators to be creative and to adjust lessons so that they can be effective in delivering the lessons and so that students are motivated to learn.
    Posted by: Karla Diaz

  6. Great topic Kate! I struggle with this pretty frequently. Part of what I love about being an educator is the creativity and adaptability that the work requires. I love that my job is different every single day. As we move towards tested interventions that are all delivered uniformly, I fear losing some of that creativity and fun in what we actually teach. While I fully support the need for curriculum to actually have a measurable impact, I think we need to pay attention to the flexibility of that curriculum and what we lose out on when we become to rigid.

    I have taught an HIV prevention intervention that requires fidelity and it is wonderful as far as HIV content, but leaves out a lot of other information that participants want and need. In settings where this is the only sexuality education they are receiving, I feel they are being done a disservice. What I have done to help balance out the narrow focus of the intervention is deliver it with fidelity and then when it is finished, tack of a few sessions of additional content. Topics like contraceptives, relationships, etc. This was students still get the information they want, but the curriculum remains intact. Not sure if this is the best solution, but it has helped me to feel better about what I am leaving students with.

  7. Kate, I really appreciated your point about multiple outcomes and their importance. While staying true to the original curriculum may be the best thing for a certain outcome, maybe thats not the most important thing in the moment. Its pretty obvious that staying faithful and not both have their time and place and pros and cons, but it really takes a good educator to tell when which is appropriate. Thats a hard thing to teach, but at least acknowledging that educators will have to make those difficult decisions is helpful. So thanks for bringing this up!

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  9. My first experience with curriculum fidelity was during parent’s night at Staples High School where teachers in every class conveyed that all teachers teach the same curriculum and that all students take identical exams. Exam results were then dissected by the teachers. If one teacher’s students excelled in STI information in comparison to the others, the methods used by that teacher to teach STIs was examined. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if the majority of students of one teacher did not do as well overall, their teaching methods were examined and improved upon through collaboration.

    Again in theory, this is a great idea. Now, as I am having to put this theory into practice at my school, I find I am having to lower my expectations for my student’s learning in order to adjust to the teacher’s ability at the other school. She wants to ‘dumb down’ the midterm and final, resulting in a less rigorous curriculum overall, while I believe that the students are capable of more.

    In 625 and 626 as Karla stated, I have designed, written, and delivered curriculum. I researched, analyzed, talked with the kids, talked with the teachers, and applied all the learning theories and proven educational theories available to me. I believe I had a well-designed curriculum, well-suited to my teaching style, as I developed it, and well- suited for my audience as indicated through research and theory. Yet I did not have curriculum fidelity. I believe as Ashely stated, that no one curriculum fits all and that there is no one effective way to educate, rather you must focus, not only on the target population, but on the specific group you are educating at the moment. Meg stated that a good educator can gage their audience and can judge the appropriateness of the curriculum. It is an “in the moment” decision. For example, I could tell that the students in the moment were not making sense of sex versus sexuality, so I pulled in the circles of sexuality and helped them to relate their brainstorming of sex and sexuality within these six areas. The concreteness of the six categories helped these students with leaning differences immensely. I was not planning on, nor was it in my curriculum, to include this teaching strategy. It was a combination of my subject knowledge and ‘being in the moment and adjusting on the fly’ that allowed me to adjust teaching methods to facilitate learning. I think this is what a good educator does all the time.

    Robin posted a link to a New York Times article about value-added modeling. This method of evaluating teachers fails in so many ways. It fails to take into account the prior knowledge of students, student ability, and teacher/student chemistry. I do not know the answer to teacher evaluation. I do know they need to be evaluated. Perhaps students should have a say. There is usually a consensus from students regarding a teacher’s ability to impart knowledge that is separate from a student’s personal opinion of a teacher. My son complains about teachers, but he really is upset when a teacher just does not know how to teach. And this is at Staples where curriculum fidelity is required.

    Becca says that the paradigms of the privileged come into play regarding proof that some methods are more effective than others and with the privilege of having training that allows one to make sense of curriculum. This paradigm also comes into play as schools in privileged districts actually fund curriculum development. Having worked in Stamford where curriculum did not exist and then transferring to Fairfield where curriculum fidelity is becoming the standard, I have to say that at least, curriculum provides a starting point for student’s expected learning outcomes within a school district. The methods to get to these outcomes might not be suited to a teacher’s style of teaching, but this is found out through delivery. I believe that as long as there is fidelity to the learning objectives, fidelity to the methods does not matter.

  10. Thanks for the post Kate! As you already know :) I too struggle with this very same concept. How do we implement evidence-based curricula with fidelity while accounting for the drastic differences in student learning styles, instructor strengths/weaknesses, time constraints etc...? I would love to tell you that I have a great answer but ultimately I don't know if there is one. We as professionals in the field must make tough choices at times. Based upon our experience and education, I hope that most of the time we can get it right. Some of the time, I know we won't. But just as an evidence-based curriculum, no matter how well it is implemented, will not affect the behavior of all students, neither will the intentional choices we make in regard to that curriculum. Part of the issue I think lies in finding the appropriate evidence-based curricula to use with the population being served. Not all curricula (even the evidence-based) will work for all youth, but finding one that is age and culturally appropriate is a good first step. Also, it is possible to make adaptations to an evidence-based program without compromising its efficacy. Check out the following document for some guidelines, though I know these alone do not fix all the issues that an instructor may have. For the most part, adaptations can be made as long as the core components(content, pedogogical and implementation) are not compromised.

    My hope ultimately is that more adaptation kits for evidence-based programs will come out. According to ETR Associates they’re on their way :)

  11. After 10 years of being in education this is something that I often struggle with. When following a curriculum step by step,the educator has little time to address the issues that the learners may wish to discuss. On the flip side, when the educator deviates from the curriculum,he could become bogged down with extraneous dialogue and not meet the objectives of the lesson. Also, in public education, state standards are what educators work with in the creation of a lesson. Districts can be punitive if an educator is found to be teaching material that has not been school board approaved. Thus, he could be terminated from his job.I believe that community sex educators have more freedom to be creative and spntaneous in presenting a curriculum. From my experiences with my community partner, creativity and freedom in their delivery of the materials is welcomed. Despite the belief of seperation of church and state, school district must work collaboratively with stakeholders from churches within the district. Thus, the concept of sex education is taboo and must not TEACH STUDENTS to have sex but eduacate them to the biology of healthy relationships.

    Let's talk about SEX....


  12. I think curriculum fidelity is very difficult to achieve!

    My experience with curriculum involved teens at a church-based organization. We wanted to implement the evidence-based "Be Proud Be Responsible" curriculum which is an HIV prevention program in 6 parts. Of course, the group could only give us 4 sessions instead of 6, so we had to make the decision: Do we find another curriculum, or do we try to adapt it? We ended up trying to adapt it. Of course, this was a one-shot program with a small number of participants, so we were not able to accurately access whether the program still worked.

    I have struggled with curriculum fidelity in other experiences as well. It seems like I am never given enough time to fully implement a program as intended. I would love it if more evidence-based programs could come with their own adaptations (also tested) suggesting activities that could be left out in order to help facilitators who don't have enough time to fully implement as written.