Monitoring and evaluating curriculum implementation:

Final evaluation report on the implementation of the New Zealand Curriculum 2008-2009

Publication Details

This report presents findings from a national evaluation of the implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum. The project sought to establish a national picture of implementation progress in English-medium schools in the first two years following the curriculum's launch in November 2007.

Author(s): Dr Claire Sinnema, The University of Auckland. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2011

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This report is available as a download (please refer to the 'Downloads' inset box).  To view the individual chapters please refer to the 'Sections' inset box.

Section 8: Conclusions

The New Zealand Curriculum is well regarded by educators across the system. They generally view it positively and consider it to be a high quality document that is an improvement on the previous curriculum. There is wide spread approval of the direction set out in The New Zealand Curriculum, and in most cases enthusiasm and eagerness to implement it well. Educators particularly value the curriculum for its flexibility, its relevance to 21st century learners, and its potential to support high quality teaching and learning for students. There has been widespread engagement with the curriculum since its launch in 2007 and progress in reviewing curriculum elements necessary for designing a local school curriculum. The majority of principals reported having reviewed all elements, including values, principles, key competencies, pedagogy and learning areas. There is evidence of a strong understanding of the school-based curriculum design implications of The New Zealand Curriculum. Respondents typically both recognise and value the opportunity to design a curriculum that meets the needs of their own students and addresses both national and local community aspirations for learning. In addition, the quality of support for implementation was rated more highly in 2008 than in 2009, and perceived barriers to implementation, in nearly all cases, reduced over that year.

This evaluation has shown, however, that there was not significant progress in implementing many key aspects of New Zealand's revised national curriculum between 2008 and 2009 (see Figure 45), despite educators having high regard for the curriculum at both time points.

Figure 45: NZC practices: 2008–2009 comparison

Image of Figure 45: NZC practices: 2008–2009 comparison.

Practitioners were not resistant to implementing the curriculum, or critical of its content or requirements. They also did not, however, change their practices in ways that reflect key elements of the new curriculum. This was the case for all respondents, but more so for teachers than leaders and more so for secondary than primary respondents. The curriculum, while designed as an inclusive one for both primary and secondary suggests, for example, a move toward greater student agency in learning, including student involvement in decisions about teaching, learning and assessment. Student agency was, alongside Parent involvement, one of the lowest rated practice variables. Secondary teachers often reported contextual barriers that made realising aspirations for student agency challenging. This response echoes the findings of Rudduck and Fielding (2006) who also found student voice to be challenging for teachers and suggest that there is a risk of surface compliance given the current popularity of student voice.

The limited progress finding is not unique to this curriculum implementation effort. Research on curriculum implementation over the decades suggests that the intentions of curriculum designers often fail to be realised when practitioners in educational contexts attempt to implement them. The conclusions of much of the research over decades of curriculum developments have more often than not, been reports of failure. In 1948, for example, Mackenzie and Lawler writing on curriculum change and improvement noted that "although philosophy has been changed and new objectives have been enumerated, and even a course of study developed, classroom practices have been modified but little" (p. 273). In the 1970s, Goodlad's and Klein's (1974) investigations showed that curriculum innovations were not finding their way into classrooms and Fullan and Pomfret (1977) described widespread variation in whether or not innovations were being implemented. Limited impact of curriculum reform efforts have also been noted by van den Akker and Verloop (1994) and many others more recently including Fullan (2008) and Levin (2008). Levin describes how little impact a curriculum change can have on teaching practice and suggests that limited adoption is more likely where the significance of the curriculum change is more significant. There is, it would seem, substantial variance in the extent to which curricular that are designed for students, are actually experienced by students (D. Cohen, Raudenbush, & Ball, 2003).

Confidence was shown to be a key variable in explaining the limited progress and variance referred to above. In the descriptive data, for instance, the overall mean for confidence was significantly lower than for regard. There were also no statistically significant differences between the 2008 and 2009 ratings for confidence. Educators were no more confident about giving effect to the curriculum in 2009 than they were the year before, despite there being a programme of support for implementation in place. The reasons for the lack of confidence were diverse, relating to teachers' own curriculum, assessment and content knowledge and also to contextual barriers. In secondary contexts for instance, the lack of alignment between assessment systems and the requirements of the curriculum were a key concern. Confidence was also the highest predictor of practice in the regression analyses demonstrating an important connection between educators' views of the complexity, workload and difficulty involved in implementation and their response in terms of classroom practice.

Giving effect to real change in response to the curriculum requires confidence, and confidence requires deep understandings about the distinctions between the new and the old curriculum elements. This is particularly so when new elements are easily perceived as being more similar to old elements than is actually the case. It was clear from the responses that, similar to those in Roehrig, Kruse and Kern's study (2007), "implementation of the curriculum was strongly influenced by the teachers' beliefs about teaching and learning, and the presence of a supportive network at their school sites" (p. 883). It was clear that efforts to implement The New Zealand Curriculum were also affected in ways unhelpful to the task by the sense-making processes at play (Spillane et al., 2002). Prior knowledge at times prevented new ways of conceiving curriculum practice. Quite different interpretations were made by those in different groups to key curriculum elements, and the tendency to assimilate new ideas with existing ones were strongly evident. One example of this was in relation to the model of effective pedagogy outlined in The New Zealand Curriculum—'Teaching as Inquiry' (Aitken & Sinnema, 2008; Ministry of Education, 2007). Prior knowledge of other kinds of inquiry led many educators to assume that Teaching as Inquiry is the same as inquiry learning, which it is not. As two secondary teachers noted (in web survey comments), "It seems like it is promoting learning by inquiry as the major method of instruction" and "'projects' have been renamed". The curriculum's promotion of Teaching as Inquiry could not, in fact, be more different to inquiry learning or projects. But to realise the distinction requires educators to read and understand much more than the heading. Recognition of the extent to which educators were "making the unfamiliar, familiar", led to a specific focus group session about Teaching as Inquiry. In that session, participants were asked to describe what was familiar to them about this new curriculum aspect. It emerged that they associate the notion of Teaching as Inquiry not only with students' inquiry learning/projects, but also with action learning, reflective practice, research projects, formative assessment and metacognition. Each of these has characteristics that are related to Teaching as Inquiry, but importantly they are also quite different in significant ways.

In this evaluation, there was no evidence of widespread understanding of the extent to which The New Zealand Curriculum calls for change and improvement. Even those who did recognise that call, and who had high regard for the curriculum's shift; were not always able to effect change in their classrooms to any meaningful extent.

The role of teachers' theories, understandings, knowledge and beliefs as key influences on their practice is widely recognised. New information, such as that embedded in a new curriculum, does not simply supplant existing knowledge and practice (Spillane et al., 2002). The generalised and automatic nature of schemata means that we rely on "surface or superficial similarities between new knowledge about something and our existing scripts for that something" (Spillane, 2004, p. 78). Well-intentioned practitioners are likely to be influenced by expectations embedded in their existing schema, and to over-assimilate reform ideas as similar to their existing ideas. As Fullan describes, this is not a new phenomenon, but is a challenging one:

Early study of implementation revealed a great deal of superficial or non-use of purported adopted innovations. One might think that this was a symptom of the beginning phases of working to improve implementation, but these problems persist to today, and they relate to the perennial difficulty of people changing both their behaviours (skills, competencies) and their beliefs (knowledge, understanding). (Fullan, 2008)

Change is also described by Robinson, Hohepa & Lloyd (2008) as a process that requires theory engagement. Theories of action are powerful, they say, because they explain teachers' actions and act as filters through which change messages are interpreted. High quality support that attends to what is known about sense-making in policy implementation, and to the need for theory engagement, will be key to continued implementation efforts.

Like other studies (Niesche & Jorgensen, 2010), substantial differences were found between the views of principals (and other non-teaching school leaders) and teachers in their reports about the implementation process. Given the press for school principals to work as instructional leaders with a focus on the core business of teaching and learning (Robinson et al., 2008), higher principal regard and confidence is a positive finding. It also signals that conditions are being created in which authority and knowledge for reform have begun to shift from external actors to the practitioners in schools—a key component of taking a reform to scale (Coburn, 2003). This shift to internal conditions for reform was also evident in the greater reliance reported in this study on internal (own colleagues for example) than external (private consultants, external facilitators and advisors) support providers. This brings with it, though, important implications in terms of the need to focus on building capacity for high quality support within schools. The differences between the views of principals and teachers is also problematic in another respect. It indicates a lack of a shared understanding about the nature of curriculum and the extent to which schools are progressing with curriculum-related practices.

The limited progress on all of the practice variables examined here signal the need for more sustained inquiry into curriculum, particularly given that the curriculum is a broad and encompassing one. Differences between the 2008 and 2009 means for practices (there was one year between administrations) were only statistically significant for three of the four practice variables, and even then, the magnitude of those difference was very small. While there were instances of teachers making meaningful changes to their practice, many were, as Bjork (2009), also reported unsettled by the disruptions to existing practice. They were "grounded by time-honoured methods, curriculum outlines, and culturally constructed conceptions of how to teach a particular subject...[and] often felt as if a secure foundation had been pulled out from underneath them" (p. 33).

Despite the limited progress in practice identified in this evaluation, the findings in relation to receptivity (and particularly the wide-spread high regard for the curriculum) suggest that practitioners across the system are well-poised to continue their efforts to give effect to The New Zealand Curriculum.


Findings from this evaluation suggest that continued efforts, across the system, to support curriculum implementation, should:

  1. focus on deepening educators' understandings about curriculum elements and their relationship to each other
  2. strengthen the quality of support for curriculum implementation
  3. create conditions that enable and promote effective curriculum implementation
  4. promote sustained inquiry into curriculum implementation.

For each of the recommendations there are implications for various groups including teachers, school leaders, support providers and policy makers. Key implications are introduced here, but the suggestions are not exhaustive.

Recommendation 1: Focus on deepening educators' understandings about curriculum elements and their relationship to each other

The New Zealand Curriculum emphasises aspirations for the curriculum serving ambitious and future focused goals for students and education generally. Goals for education include building an education system for the 21st century and securing New Zealand's place in the global knowledge society of the future. Goals for students include that they experience the most effective, powerful and engaging teaching possible and are prepared for complexity, change and diversity in information, technology, work and social conditions. The New Zealand Curriculum vision for students is for lifelong learners who are confident and creative, connected, and actively involved. Realising these goals, and this vision, requires educators to have deep understandings both about the discrete curriculum elements (such as Values, Learning Areas, 'Teaching as Inquiry', and Key Competencies), and the implications of those elements when considered in combination.

Findings from this evaluation signal that teachers and principals have begun to contemplate implications of each of the curriculum elements, but in most cases have not had the opportunity to develop deep understandings. As is common in the implementation of curriculum policy initiatives, there has been a tendency in the first two years since the launch of The New Zealand Curriculum to emphasise surface aspects, and to focus more on familiar than unfamiliar ideas.

Focusing on deepening understandings about curriculum suggests, for teachers, the need to be open to identifying curriculum aspects that are most unfamiliar, and also contemplating greater depth in curriculum aspects initially considered familiar. It requires attention to curriculum elements not only as discrete parts, but also to the curriculum as whole in which learning areas, values, pedagogy and key competencies (for example) interact. To address this recommendation, school leaders will need to focus their leadership on moving beyond curriculum familiarity or compliance, towards curriculum depth. A focus on depth requires quite different expectations, resourcing and professional learning to a focus on curriculum compliance.

Recommendation 2: Strengthen the quality of support for curriculum implementation

High quality support is important for two key reasons. Firstly, in this evaluation a relationship was found between the quality of support educators reported and the extent to which they hold the curriculum in high regard and have the confidence necessary (though not sufficient) to ultimately shift their practice in ways that reflect its aspirations. Support providers have an important role to play in working with practitioners to recognise the value, relevance and importance of the curriculum overall, and of more specific aspects of the curriculum. Secondly, educators are unlikely to arrive at new and deeper understandings of curriculum (found in this evaluation to be a gap) on their own. High quality support has a critical role to play in engaging practitioners' theories of action (including cueing their existing understandings) in order to deepen their understandings of the curriculum.

There are implications here both for those who resource and plan curriculum implementation support, and for those who provide it. School leaders, for example, need to ensure support for their teachers that is not just about The New Zealand Curriculum, but that is likely to be effective in helping teachers deepen their understandings and shift their practice. That, for most, will require opportunities for theory engagement—to rigorously inquire into existing beliefs about curriculum, teaching and learning, in light of what is set out in the new curriculum and to respond.

For those with a role in policy, a key implication is around the provision of support that goes beyond just informing educators about the curriculum, or communicating ideas. Rather it requires high quality support provision that engages them in examining the congruence between their own theories of practice, and the theories that underpin key curriculum elements. The need to strengthen capabilities for high quality support provision relates to support from both within and beyond schools.

Recommendation 3: Create conditions that enable and promote effective curriculum implementation

Curriculum implementation does not occur in a bubble. Teaching and learning at the classroom level is nested within, and influenced by, the school, community and national educational context. The practices deemed important in The New Zealand Curriculum can be either enabled or constrained by the conditions in place in each of those contexts. Contextual factors were raised by many participants in this evaluation as barriers to their implementation efforts.

Just as the curriculum seeks to prepare students for lives that are profoundly different from the past, so too the curriculum requires a profound response. Implementation that goes beyond substituting language and altering paperwork, to profoundly changing and improving students' experience of teaching and learning, requires particular conditions. Teachers and leaders could consider, for example, how their school's goals, resources, routines, and systems enable each of the curriculum elements. To what extent do those support each of the learning areas, the key competencies, effective pedagogy or values for example? Less tangible elements of the context, such as attitudes, values and expectations, also function as enabling or constraining conditions on curriculum implementation, and require consideration.

At the system level attention to policy alignment is critical in considering how conditions enable and promote implementation. As practitioners in school grapple with multiple policies and programme initiatives, the coherence between these is critical. There is a need to examine the extent to which requirements beyond the curriculum, for planning and reporting or performance management for example, align with the direction set out in The New Zealand Curriculum.

Recommendation 4: Promote sustained inquiry into curriculum implementation

It is clear from the evaluation of curriculum progress between 2008 and 2009, that implementation of a curriculum as ambitious and aspirational as The New Zealand Curriculum is not a one or two year endeavour. Implementation will require sustained inquiry over time at both school and system levels. The curriculum focus on continuing design and review, and the Teaching as Inquiry model support the notion of sustained inquiry in schools. That inquiry should also be paralleled with system level inquiry, in order for the priorities, needs and strengths in relation to implementation to be effectively responded to.

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