An analysis of recent Pasifika education research literature to inform and improve outcomes for Pasifika learners

Publication Details

This aim of this report is to review education literature and clarify key evidence towards improved learning and achievement outcomes for Pasifika learners. It identifies priorities for future research in Pasifika education.

Author(s): Cherie Chu, Ali Glasgow, Fuapepe Rimoni, Mimi Hodis and Luanna H. Meyer, Victoria University of Wellington.

Date Published: July 2013

Executive Summary

This review of the literature highlights and clarifies key evidence towards improved learning and achievement outcomes for Pasifika learners and identifies priorities for future research in Pasifika education. Specifically, the report is a critical analysis of the Pasifika education literature since 2001 to:

  • build on important findings identified in the Coxon et al. (2002) Pasifika education research literature review
  • identify important gaps in our research-based knowledge about strategies to attain improved learning and achievement outcomes for all Pasifika learners in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • suggest future priorities for research that can be used to inform policy and practice to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for Pasifika learners in Aotearoa New Zealand.


The review of the literature was guided by the report of the Working Group on research priorities for Pasifika education (Ministry of Education, 2012) and the Pasifika Education Plan Monitoring Report 2009 (Ministry of Education, 2011). This present report includes:

  • A critical analysis of the evidence for five ‘areas for investigation’, with a view towards potential contributions to policy and practice in Pasifika education. These areas were identified as key areas for improvement in the Ministry of Education’s Pasifika Education Plan 2009–2012 and used by the Working Group mentioned above as the basis for developing a set of research priorities. These five topical areas are: governance and leadership; families and community engagement; literacy and numeracy; effective teaching; transitions.
  • A summary of the extent to which sector information gaps and recommended research priorities identified by Coxon et al (2002) have been addressed since their review. The sectors are: early childhood; primary; secondary; tertiary.
  • Identification, for each of the topical ‘areas for investigation’, of: (a) significant information gaps; and (b) research priorities to address identified information gaps and build on key findings from research to date to inform policy and practice for improved Pasifika education outcomes.


The report is designed to be responsive to Ministry of Education requirements but also to be useful and accessible for a range of other audiences. Other audiences who hold key stakeholder roles in Pasifika education include policy developers, teachers in each of the sectors (early childhood, primary, intermediate, secondary and tertiary), teacher educators, experienced and emerging educational researchers including Pasifika researchers, and Pasifika parents and other interested community members.

Evidence over the last 10 years to support policy and practice

The overall aim of the project was to review and summarise recent (2002–2012) empirical evidence that could contribute to the development of educational policy and practice to enhance Pasifika learner outcomes. Highlights of the key findings of the research literature reviewed are summarised below.

  1. Governance and leadership:  In the early childhood, primary, and secondary sectors, insufficient attention has been paid in the research literature to governance and leadership to improve Pasifika outcomes. The Education Review Office (2012) noted that of the schools they reviewed and judged to be most effective, less than half provided any report to their Board of Trustees on Pasifika student achievement, only a few offered Pasifika languages and culture as subjects, none conducted analyses for effectiveness with Pasifika students, and few were aware of and using the (Ministry of Education’s) Pasifika Education Plan. McNaughton and Lai (2009) found that when school leaders and teachers actively and effectively use student achievement data as the basis for designing problem-solving approaches to support students and prioritise professional development for staff, the impact on student outcomes is positive. In the tertiary sector, there is some qualitative evidence of effective mentoring approaches for enhancing Pasifika educational leadership.
  2. Families and community engagement: There is anecdotal and qualitative research evidence that engagement and partnerships with Pasifika families and communities are crucial to support educational achievements of Pasifika learners. Formal evaluation evidence of impact on outcomes is lacking, but model descriptions are available for various initiatives at early childhood/primary levels connecting with church organisations, and secondary school Pasifika clubs connecting with particular Pasifika communities.
  3. Literacy and numeracy: There is evidence of enhanced literacy and numeracy outcomes for Pasifika children in the primary years through well-planned bilingual educational approaches that enable children to learn across the curriculum in their Pasifika language alongside learning English, rather than requiring them to learn in English. This research reflects rigorous research design criteria and is consistent with parallel research internationally. At secondary level, coursework offerings focused on Pasifika culture utilising unit standards and disproportionate streaming of Pasifika students into unit standards-based coursework may disadvantage Pasifika learners who lack opportunities to attain Merit and Excellence on the NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) and demonstrate less than optimal motivation orientations. There is some evidence that a motivation-enhanced homework and study skills programme is associated with higher achievement on the NCEA compared with a traditional programme.
  4. Effective teaching: Widespread consensus is evident among educationalists in New Zealand that culturally responsive pedagogies are important to support learning, but the focus of research in this area has been primarily on Māori rather than Pasifika. In early childhood, teacher understandings of key Pasifika cultural conceptions are regarded as essential for Pasifika children’s learning. At secondary level, there is evidence that Pasifika students—more so than other cultural groups—report being more motivated when their teachers show they care about their learning (going beyond caring about them personally). There is promising though limited evidence that targeted academic counselling, including goal setting, is related to successful secondary school completion. At tertiary level, students report valuing culturally responsive approaches and support systems, but there are no long-term studies of the impact of these on retention, grades, and graduate outcomes. Across all sectors, research on the impact of linkages with the family, home and Pasifika community to support Pasifika student learning is absent. There is a dearth overall of research focused on effective teaching for Pasifika students who are gifted and for those who have disabilities requiring special education services and supports.
  5. Transitions: Transition support for bilingualism is related to both Pasifika language maintenance and positive transition experiences in the early primary years. Although the evidence for Pasifika is limited, smooth transitioning from early childhood settings to primary school has been related to factors such as systematic planning for transition, valuing of Pasifika languages and culture, and strong connection between educators and the home/community. Major research from the University of Auckland’s Starpath Project has identified a series of stepping stones and stumbling blocks that have impact on the transition from secondary to tertiary study, including evidence of the effectiveness of targeted academic counselling with goal setting for this transition. Career awareness initiatives have also been shown to enhance post-secondary choices.

Significant information gaps and identified research priorities

The present review also highlights that significant information gaps which were previously identified in the Coxon et al. review (2002) continue to be evident in 2012.

Establishing research priorities to address gaps in our knowledge is an important step towards improving outcomes for all Pasifika learners through more informed policy and practice. This review therefore presents a series of suggested priority research topics to address the information gaps highlighted by Coxon et al. (2002), as well as other information gaps identified by the present review. While the more specific recommendations are documented in the main body of this report, the following provides a summary overview of identified research priorities in relation to student outcomes data, and each of the five broad topic areas referred to earlier.

  • Student outcomes data: There is an overarching need to establish access to good data on student performance—a challenge across all educational sectors. Educational initiatives for Pasifika (as for all children and youth) cannot be evaluated properly without good data on student outcomes as a function of those initiatives. Evidence gained from valid and reliable measures of educational outcomes is essential for research and evaluation towards identifying factors related to enhanced outcomes. We need valid and reliable measures of student achievement across the school years, enabling schools to accurately track the progress of individual students and to report their achievement data longitudinally. Currently, there is little consensus regarding which measures should be used and schools often lack expertise in the use of existing data management systems to adequately monitor achievement and other outcomes for individual students to complement the primarily broad-based, large (ethnic) group statistics typically available. This is an  urgent issue if we are to ensure that research involving student progress and achievement will provide a sound basis from which to make  decisions leading to enhanced educational outcomes.
  • Governance and leadership: There is urgent need for research on culturally appropriate ways of involving Pasifika communities in governance and leadership across all sectors. This is particularly important for Pasifika where the role of the family and the Pasifika community has a strong impact across all aspects of children’s lives. Identified inequities in NCEA offerings and choices across secondary schools have implications for aspects of governance and leadership in educational organisations if outcomes for Pasifika students are to be improved. Rigorous research evidence on the learning and other outcomes for Pasifika students taught in bilingual settings is urgently needed to support the development of government policy on Pasifika bilingual programmes and initiatives and also policy and practice within bilingual settings. Research is also needed on approaches for engaging Pasifika leadership as partners in the educational process at all levels.
  • Families and community engagement: There is urgent need for validated organisational approaches for home–school–community engagement and for the development of individual teacher knowledge, understandings and use of culturally responsive approaches to promote positive connections to family and community for Pasifika. Further research is also needed to identify Pasifika parent aspirations for their children and to ascertain how best to ensure that Pasifika families gain the knowledge and understanding that will enable them to provide sound input regarding their children’s academic and career choices. In addition, there needs to be research to provide transparency regarding the disproportionate placement of Pasifika students into low streams and unit standards-based coursework at secondary level. Such transparency is necessary if parents are to be enabled to contribute to ensuring higher goals and aspirations for their children’s educational opportunities and achievements.
  • Literacy and numeracy: Consideration needs to be given to extending research beyond a focus on what contributes to positive literacy and numeracy achievement outcomes for Pasifika, to investigating their achievement in other domains, across sectors and subjects. Subject-specific literacy (and numeracy) is also a relatively neglected area of investigation, despite conventional wisdom that this could enhance performance in other subjects on the NCEA, for example. More research is needed regarding culturally responsive pedagogies and bilingual models consistent with educational policy to enhance outcomes for students who enter educational settings speaking English as a second language or speaking only a Pasifika language. There is urgent need for research which includes validated achievement and achievement-related measures of educational outcomes across the curriculum for Pasifika children: until now, there has been little systematic and reliable information regarding student achievement until late in young people’s school careers—their senior secondary years, thus severely limiting potential for improving educational outcomes and limiting the usability of research findings to inform policy and practice to this end.
  • Effective teaching: Research is needed on culturally responsive pedagogies at the early childhood, primary, intermediate and secondary levels and on culturally appropriate teaching and learning strategies that can be incorporated into tertiary and university level programmes and degrees. Formal evaluation against agreed goals should be required for implementation of educational initiatives and new programmes, with the standard of evidence raised from the current over-reliance on experiential knowledge and anecdote rather than data on student outcomes. Usable data systems are needed that can provide teachers in centres and schools with current and longitudinal data on individual students to assist them in planning and problem-solving to support improved educational outcomes. Research is needed to provide guidance about effective mechanisms for teachers and parents to work together on academic planning and educational goal setting to maximise student outcomes. Key characteristics of effective tertiary programme supports need to be based on research evidence rather than historical practices or deficit theorising.
  • Transitions: There has been recent work on transitions generally that is helpful in understanding important aspects of the various transition points for all students, including Pasifika. However, this research has not specifically investigated transition experiences for Pasifika children, and research is needed at all levels with respect to factors that lead to successful transition for Pasifika students to the next level of education and towards future careers after leaving school. In early childhood specifically, information is needed on factors that can be influenced by centres that are associated with successful transitions from language nests to mainstream primary schools. In the school sector, the impact of the nature and extent of subject and qualification pathways requires further investigation in light of Pasifika children’s overrepresentation in low-quintile schools that tend to be smaller than and thus offer fewer subject choices in comparison with high-quintile schools. At least some proportion of this research needs to shift from reports of stakeholder perceptions about programme impact to evidence of student outcomes including retention, grades, and educational completion.

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