Curriculum implementation exploratory studies: Final Report

Publication Details

This final report provides an overview of the findings from the Curriculum Implementation Exploratory Studies (CIES) project.

Author(s): Bronwen Cowie, Rosemary Hipkins, Sally Boyd, Ally Bull, Paul Keown, Clive McGee, with Beverley Cooper, Jenny Ferrier-Kerr, Anne Hume, Anne McKim, Judy Moreland, Michele Morrison, Rachel Bolstad, Lorraine Spiller, Merilyn Taylor, and Russell Yates, New Zealand Council for Educational Research, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: October 2009

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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.  For links to related publications/ information that may be of interest please refer to the 'Where to Find Out More' inset box.

Section 5: Theme C: School leaders as lead learners

The importance of the principal's strategic leadership of learning was arguably the strongest theme to emerge from both rounds of fieldwork and so the various dimensions of this theme are elaborated in considerable detail. While some of the matters raised have already been signalled in Theme B, the focus here is on implications for leading and sustaining change.

Effective principals model being a leading learner

Across the cases, principals and other school leaders concurred that active, hands-on involvement is critical to successful and sustained curriculum innovation. They appreciated that their leadership had influenced teachers' willingness to make the necessary long-term personal commitment to their own professional learning and that it provided a catalyst for change in staff expectations of professional development. Teachers found enthusiastic modelling of a focus on personal professional learning was motivating:

The motivation of the principal, her excitement and passion sparked up and influenced me. She has been instrumental in feeding the excitement. (Primary school teacher, higher decile school)

Principals made active use of new learning, critically evaluating what they read, or had been told, in light of their own beliefs and experiences of what would be of interest and value to their students and community. They used insights gained from their own learning to generate possibilities for action and to justify recommended changes. Teachers from across the cases expressed a sense of appreciation and pride that their principal was up to date with current thinking and trends.

Leaders have strong support networks and connections for their own professional learning

Principals and other school leaders read widely (books, research papers and material on the Web) and attended a range of conferences and seminars. Most were active members of professional organisations (national and international) and local, regional and national principal/leadership networks that offered support and opportunities to debate ideas and issues with peers who were also in implementation leadership roles. Networks that were mentioned included MOE initiatives such as the First Time Principals Programme (FTPP) and the New Zealand Curriculum Principals' Group. They also included local principals' associations and forums such as local Literacy Professional Development and ICT professional development clusters. School leaders visited other schools to share, discuss and learn new ideas. They also sought out and accessed information from external experts. Some principals and school leaders were involved in, or had recently completed, further study. In two cases the BOT had supported study trips for the principal to visit schools in other countries where alternative models of curriculum design were considered.

Effective principals work to develop distributed leadership

Although principal leadership is a necessary prerequisite for curriculum reform, distributed leadership is essential for sustained change. According to leadership researchers the task is too monumental for the principal alone (Elmore, 2000; Fullan, 2005), a point made succinctly by Southworth who contended "belief in the power of one is giving way to a belief in the power of everyone" (2005, p. 77). How are principals working to achieve this ideal?

In the case study schools the senior leadership team usually assumed collective responsibility for orchestrating high-level discussion to develop a shared understanding of vision, values and key competencies (or front end of the document). Whole-school discussions of effective pedagogy tended to be led by the senior leadership team but typically departments or syndicate leaders or groups/individuals with the relevant expertise and enthusiasm led curriculum implementation at the level of the classroom.

Strategic appointments from within and outside the school can help achieve the goal of distributing leadership. In some schools, the senior leadership team had an explicit focus on developing leadership capacity in the hope that sharing leadership responsibilities amongst a wide range of staff would give teachers more opportunity to play to their strengths, and ensure that teachers from different levels and interest areas had the opportunity to work together and build succession planning into the system. Where this approach had been adopted, staff valued the new challenges and professional growth this entailed and appreciated the way their interests and professional knowledge had been acknowledged.

Example 1:
Rather than appoint a fourth deputy principal, one secondary school decided to enhance the leadership structure from within by appointing Lead Learning Coaches (LLC). These people hold cross-curricula portfolios which include Gifted and Talented Education, Māori, Pacific students, Literacy, Numeracy, Resource Teachers Learning Behaviour, Specialist Classroom Teacher and ATOL.

Example 2:
In another school, strategic appointments included a deputy principal with curriculum responsibility, a learning dean and restructuring of other staff responsibilities to emphasise their roles as leaders of learning.

Example 3:
The principal, with the support of the BOT, restructured the senior management team around the National Administration Guidelines (NAG). New senior management personnel, who are committed to the new directions the principal has set, have been appointed from outside the school. One deputy principal has delegated responsibility for curriculum (NAG 1) and supports the principal in her role as academic leader. Other new deputy principals also have expertise in curriculum and contribute to a team approach.

Example 4:
A primary school, has established a small senior leadership team directly responsible for curriculum implementation, nominating teachers outside the core leadership team to lead the teams responsible for each learning area in the curriculum. These leaders present to the BOT on their specialist area.

Example 5:
In one school, staff with relevant expertise were released to assist teachers to implement or trial practices. Wednesday morning professional development was led by different staff and constituted the main mechanism for curriculum development and the building of shared understandings. The principal met all teachers twice a term to review progress towards their goals and to give observational feedback.

Example 6:
One primary school called on the skills of specialist teachers to build capacity across the staff. Once a week, specialist teachers model classes for subjects such as music and Te Reo, then leave teachers with strategies and ideas for them to further develop during the week.

Leadership is distributed as widely as possible

In some schools students were involved in decision making and leadership roles. These included: peer mediation; a "buddy" programme where senior students help junior students with their reading; house leaders; students' responsibilities for looking after playground equipment or helping in the library; and the student council. The students from one school where the school council started two years ago felt that it was making a big difference to the school. Another school was expanding the range of ways students are able to take an active role in the school by increasing the leadership opportunities available to Year 8 students as well as students from other years. Rather than asking for volunteers, students now campaign for a place on the student council, and attend local student leadership days. All Year 8 students have buddies and are whānau or house group leaders, and the school is training Physical Activity Leaders (PALs) and student "teaching assistants". Teachers were also thinking about developing a student Envirogroup.

Less frequently, students' leadership extended to having some influence on determining directions for classroom learning. For example, in one school students said that each year they were asked what topics they would like to learn about during their inquiry the following year, and the whole-school inquiry focus was chosen from these ideas supplied by students. They also discussed various strategies and ideas their teachers used regularly in class to help them take more ownership of their own learning.

Boards of trustees have a prescribed leadership role in relation to the National Education Guidelines (NEGs) and National Administration Guidelines (NAGs). Across the schools in the study, trustees showed a high degree of commitment to the aims of the change processes being initiated by school professional leaders and support for teacher professional development (Hipkins et al., 2009). School leaders and teachers considered they were well supported by their BOT. Although the board representatives interviewed in Round One were clear that the task of curriculum implementation fell within the principal's role, a supportive BOT was an added catalyst for assisting change. As evident in the above examples, in some cases they had supported the restructuring of the school leadership team. They also played a pivotal role in mediating communication between the school and its community (see Theme F: Engaging the community).

Fullan (2001), writing in an American context, has argued that reform requires change at the level of the school/community, the district and the state. In the New Zealand context, clusters of schools such as those for the ICT professional development contracts operate as an entity which distributes leadership and supports change. Jones and Eick (2007) suggest that innovative schools often have a network of partnerships with organisations and groups in the wider community. One of the case study principals was emphatic that, in a small community, a town-wide approach to education is essential. In his view, all the schools, along with people and organisations in the wider community, have a collective responsibility for the quality of the education provided to the young people in their local community. He believes the collegial/collaborative relationships that are developing between educators in various schools across town are the most powerful strategy for making change happen. Collaboration at this level has the potential to address concerns around the potential impact of flexibility and freedom in the NZC on the coherence of students' learning.

MOE policy decisions can also provide leadership support

Curriculum statements such as the NZC are one of the tools that policy makers have available to them to guide and lead change (Hannaway & Woodroffe, 2003). As has already been discussed (Theme Two above) there was general support for the direction of the NZC.

Capacity building through the provision of professional development and resources can be seen as another means of distributing leadership. Schools and teachers found the teacher-only days for discussing the document valuable and expressed a desire for more designated days. They were making use of MOE resources and accessing opportunities for professional development.

The case study schools were looking to the Ministry for further support and guidance but, perhaps because many of them were "early adopter" schools, they were not waiting for this. Rather, they were calling on past practices and their own resources to work through the implementation process. Nevertheless, school concerns about coherence in student opportunities to learn, and whether their implementation was within an acceptable range when judged by others, point to a leadership gap or opportunity for the Ministry.

A vision for where the school is heading in relation to student learning and pedagogy

Principals and school leaders in both rounds expressed a strong commitment to enhancing the learning of their students. They emphasised the importance of a shared school vision and a process for putting this vision in place across the whole school community. As discussed above, by Round Two many principals had come to the realisation that the development of a school vision would always be "a work in progress". Principals highlighted the centrality of the relationship between the school vision for student learning and achievement and teacher pedagogical practices in support of this. They were clear that a school vision needed to be both shared and lived. In some schools, staff meetings and teacher appraisal processes had been changed to encourage the exploration of and reflection on new pedagogies. In some schools, principal commitment to this was such that they had taken steps to ensure that they spent time in classrooms. These principals were keen to experience the curriculum/vision in practice for themselves. In one school, for example, the principal visited classrooms as part of the overall school plan for targeted professional development support. In another school, the principal and deputy principals are conducting "learning walks" with an agreed focus and negotiated observational schedule. The principal collates the observations and reports them to team leaders who discuss both positives and areas for improvement in their next team meeting. The principal noted this was "a good, if trendy, way of distributing leadership". In yet another school, a secondary principal had elected to teach a class in 2009 so she could "get the feel" of what the school curriculum direction looked like in the classroom, which she saw as the key question for the school's implementation process.

Strategic pacing and understanding change processes are important aspects of leadership

Principals were acutely aware that change takes time and of the need to be inclusive. They spoke of the need to manage teacher resistance to change: "There is a very human element to this [the implementation process]." They perceived a need to fit the pace of change with staff needs and both pacing and sequencing of change activities were carefully considered.

School leaders recommended that other schools begin the implementation process by taking small steps, celebrating the steps that were taken making sure that the contributions and efforts made by each and all of the staff at the school were valued. A number of school leaders discussed the challenge of driving change whilst allowing time for teachers to contribute ideas and develop deep understanding, all the while allowing for the diversity of teacher responses and expertise. One school had addressed these tensions by trialling initiatives on a small scale before they are implemented more widely.

The key questions being asked by principals of themselves and of staff were, "What should the rate of change be?" and "How much change is too much change?" One principal explained, "The staff is my classroom" and "there will always be early adopters and those who are not". Teachers were appreciative of school leaders' careful management of the pace of change so that they did not feel overwhelmed.

Compared with the first round of data collection, there was growing understanding from school leaders that curriculum implementation involves an iterative adaptive cycle of trialling, reflection and the generation of new possibilities. This was summed up by the principal from a primary school:

The best thing we did was not say 'We're finished' as different aspects of practice were reviewed. Staff now see constantly evolving approaches as a hallmark of educational practice. (Primary principal, South Island school)

A few principals speculated that leading their teachers to make substantive changes to their classroom practice may be more challenging, and their leadership would need to be ongoing:

We're on a roll, so it's up to me to keep it going. That is going to be more difficult. (Primary principal, state integrated North Island school)

Leaders are not afraid to take calculated risks and make changes

Leaders in the case study schools created a trusting environment that supported school-wide experimentation with new ideas and structures. It was acknowledged that taking risks and trialling ideas in the classroom would be important for teachers. During Round Two, participants were asked to reflect on what they had tried out and achieved since the Round One interviews. Their responses indicated that they had trialled and evaluated a number of initiatives, some of which had not played out as they had anticipated. They were comfortable discussing successes and initiatives that had been dropped or were being revised. For example, one initiative trialled involved promoting the reflective process of learning through the use of electronic portfolios. Issues with the Internet caused this project to be sidelined for 2009. By Round Two, teachers from a number of the case study schools discussed being more comfortable with changes and with not knowing how things might transpire. One teacher affirmed the commitment from the leadership team at her school:

… to really unpack and be really honest about the difficult stuff. You aren't judged on that. (Primary school teacher, South Island school)

Expressing optimism for the future, one deputy principal noted that teachers were taking more risks in their teaching.

Challenges, tensions and solutions

Sustaining informal networks can be difficult

At the time of the first round of data collection (March 2008), the principals in three of the case study clusters were involved in the Principals' Professional Learning Group contract. The second round took place after the contract had finished and only one group continued to meet. The diversity in their goals and beliefs about best practice had contributed to the fragmentation of one group that no longer met, but this group had been established for a shorter time. The third cluster had also dissolved, even though it had seemingly been operating well. This does raise issues of the sustainability of such groups when external facilitation ceases.

Managing the personal pressures of leadership

Some principals felt isolated and lacking support, even when they were networked and respected by their community. In part this may be because of the weight of staff and community expectations. A key benefit of membership of principal groups and networks was seen to be the opportunity to debate ideas and possible practices with fellow principals as critical friends who would challenge and extend their thinking. There was concern that this type of support should be put in place for new principals.

Sustaining personal learning

The leaders who were interviewed valued meetings with other schools and they were happy to offer support and advice to schools still in the early stages of implementation. However, this created some tensions because their readiness to move more quickly meant that some of these encounters were less relevant for their own learning. Alongside this, school leaders were aware of the pressure for action and change and of the need to take time to "pull back and reflect" on what was being done.

Doing the "right" thing

In some schools, small rural schools in particular, there was concern that principals had few opportunities to share and compare ideas and practices with other schools, and thus could not judge the extent or not of their progress towards implementation. As one rural principal commented, "It can be scary because how do we know if we are doing the right things?" This was of concern in relation to ERO expectations and more generally. A deputy principal from a low-decile urban school was emphatic that, in order to maintain an environment where teachers felt empowered to do what they think is required to meet the needs of their students, there must be a high-trust relationship with the Government.

The need for coherence

As schools worked to explore and change the different aspects of the curriculum and their practice, ensuring coherence has emerged as a challenge for principals to manage:

Coherence is a huge issue and we need to keep pulling the various aspects of our work together in a coherent and connected whole. (Secondary school principal)

A common theme (addressed more fully in Theme E: Changing pedagogy) is that alignment of school structures, and of different curriculum elements and components of practice, can simplify implementation for staff without sacrificing complexity. It can help make changes seem manageable and purposeful. However, this does require schools leaders to have a deep understanding of both the big picture intent and the detail of the curriculum, and the strategic wisdom to lead and build on staff learning.

What happens when a charismatic leader goes?

The research literature suggests that change and innovation are more likely to be sustained when a principal leaves if leadership is distributed and changes are embedded in school practices (Leithwood, Harris, & Hopkins, 2008). This was observed to be the case in one primary school where the principal changed over the course of the study. The new principal, with the support of remaining staff, has continued to pursue the same general goals and practices, albeit with a somewhat refocused orientation. Several other principals were actively thinking about continuity planning.

Supporting leaders in other schools at the early stages of implementation

Teachers in some of the early adopter schools were well aware of the value and importance of their principal's leadership. They expressed sympathy and concern for colleagues in other schools who were less fortunate. This raises the challenge of how to support those principals who are less engaged, and also the question of how their staff might be supported if their principal continues not to engage with implementation, especially given the strategic thinking and personal learning that has emerged as being central to effective leadership of this change process. The Ministry might usefully continue/expand networking opportunities to those who are isolated/not engaged with clusters or not currently involved in principal training.

What does this look like when it is working well?

The following comment about a professional learning opportunity sums up the complexity of the challenges faced by school leaders very eloquently:

The conference gave me confirmation we are on the right track. I'm still not sure but confident we have done the thinking. I am excited by the consolidation and getting things humming in class. … I would have said our core business was learning. I now see the importance of 'deep support' to enable the learning to happen. What happens to the 10 to 20 percent of students that don't achieve or underachieve at any level is an ethical consideration. I've tried to keep my ear to the ground, tried not to move too fast. It is a process and I have learned not to beat myself up when things need to be slowed down or adjusted. That is the nature of it—the uncertainty. I wouldn't call myself a confident leader. I didn't have a concrete plan of what it would look like but we need to do something for kids. Not doing anything is no longer an option.

When the process is working well, school leaders are active and visible, leading learning in their school community. Effective principals work to strategically distribute leadership and to make use of the strengths of others in their school community. They initiate and sustain a strong focus on student learning and on developing a shared vision for how that learning will be achieved.

Effective leaders are strongly networked, with connections to various groups that provide professional and personal support. They are strategic in managing the pace of change and take cognisance of likely personal challenges for staff. They support risk taking by creating an environment of trust and ongoing collaborative dialogue about effective practice.

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