Training teachers to use a new program? Go slow, study finds

July 18, 2017

New research from USC Rossier shows teachers should learn a program thoroughly before they can tailor it

By Ross Brenneman

Considering the pace at which some districts scale up programs that have had at least some small success, new research has some big implications for what approaches teachers should use when implementing a new program.

In a study led by David M. Quinn, an assistant professor of education at USC Rossier, researchers found that as schools embrace programs that are scaling up, they’d do well to go by the book before tweaking it—at least at first. Then once teachers are familiar with a program, they should begin to adapt it to fit the particular environment of their schools, the study says.

“This study provides evidence that scaffolding the implementation of new programs for teachers helps them learn more, change their instructional practice and ultimately, helps their students learn more, too,” Quinn said. “Providing structures for teachers to make principled adaptations to a program was more beneficial when teachers already had experience implementing the program with fidelity.”

Researchers used a randomized trial of READS for Summer Learning, a summer literacy intervention for elementary school students that features school- and home-based components; the program is designed to narrow income-based reading skill gaps.

The study used data from 27 high-poverty North Carolina schools that were randomly assigned to implement the program in different ways. In some schools, teachers implemented the program with a “fidelity focused” approach for two consecutive years, in which they were directed not to deviate from the program’s instructional recommendations. Other schools followed the fidelity-focused approach in the first year, but followed a “structured adaptive” approach in the second year, during which they worked collaboratively to change elements to better suit their respective school environments.

“Even in cases in which teachers are expected to implement a program with fidelity, program adaptation may be inevitable,” the authors write. “Consequently, it is important that teachers’ adaptations do not compromise the effectiveness of the program. This requires that teachers have deep enough knowledge of the program theory to avoid detrimental adaptations.”

Using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as a measuring tool, the researchers found students benefitted significantly more from the program in year two when their teachers experienced the fidelity-focused implementation path in year one, followed by structured-adaptive implementation in year two (as compared to students whose teachers were in the fidelity-focused condition both years).

The results provide evidence that teachers probably shouldn’t be expected to tailor a program to a school’s conditions without first having deep knowledge of that program.

“By understanding the circumstances under which a fidelity-focused approach versus a structured-adaptive approach to educational program management will generally lead to improved outcomes, practitioners will be better positioned to tailor school improvement efforts to their contexts,” the authors conclude.

The study, “Scaffolding Fidelity and Adaptation in Educational Program Implementation: Experimental Evidence From a Literacy Intervention,” appears in the July 2017 edition of the American Educational Research Journal. The study was co-authored with James S. Kim of Harvard University.

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