Case studies of schools: Implementation of National Curriculum Publications
This report outlines the findings of 23 case studies. The case studies were carried out to extend and enrich the findings of the survey studies in the research project Curriculum Stocktake: National School Sampling Study, which has been ongoing since 2001.
Author(s): Clive McGee, Mary Hill, Bronwen Cowie, Thelma Miller, Peggy Lee, Louise Milne, Kerry Earl, Ariana Donaghy and Alister Jones, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.
Date Published: March 2004
This report outlines the findings of 23 case studies. The case studies were carried out to extend and enrich the findings of the survey studies in the research project Curriculum Stocktake: National School Sampling Study, which has been ongoing since 2001 (see p. vii). The case studies were conducted mostly in 2003 and involved interviews, observations and document analyses. Schools were chosen to approximately reflect the ratio of school types in New Zealand and covered a wide geographical area that included both North and South Islands. In selecting the schools, care was taken to avoid any which had been involved in the survey studies, and to ensure that recent Education Review Office Reports were indicative of curriculum implementation at the chosen schools being well regarded. That is, they were schools that had demonstrated effective implementation, but were continuing to face ongoing issues.
The interview questions, observations and document analyses were structured to investigate how the national curriculum had been implemented within each school. Case studies were written from audio-tapes and case notes, returned to each school for verification and then completed in an agreed format so that analysis across the entire sample could be completed. As a result, issues and themes across the schools were identified and form the basis of this report.
Analysis of the case study findings has largely confirmed the survey results reported in other milestones in this project. In general, teachers appeared positive about the national curriculum and have worked tirelessly to ensure that it has been implemented for the benefit of their students. In teachers' endeavours to achieve this, all have had to work innovatively in implementing a range of school-wide systems, a process relying heavily on teamwork, albeit that the findings have elucidated considerable variation among schools in the way they have developed school and classroom programmes. The structure of the curriculum, in particular, its division into strands and levels, National Education Goals and National Administration Guidelines, and expectations about student achievement have had a pervasive effect on curriculum and assessment implementation. Considerable importance has been placed on understanding and interpreting the national curriculum documents, often through whole-school professional development with school schemes and plans to guide programmes and assessment having been developed in almost every one of the case study schools. Nevertheless, there were some signs of teacher resistance to changes they were not convinced about.
Case studies revealed common challenges in curriculum implementation, such as teacher overwork, a very full (even "overcrowded") curriculum, and the need to streamline and use assessment results efficiently and effectively. They were evident across the entire sample. Some differences between secondary and primary schools were also evident.
While some issues were common for all schools, primary and secondary, others were more specific to primary schools. Across all the primary schools, curriculum leadership was central to the school's organisation. In several, new leadership titles such as "director" or "manager" had been established. These curriculum leaders were responsible for leading teams in most curriculum areas. Nomenclature of subject matter had also shifted, English being called "literacy," and mathematics, "numeracy." Most schools had highly organised systems for school-wide curriculum planning and assessment including student tracking and the collection and aggregation of assessment results. Teachers were very positive about the resources that the Ministry of Education and their school had provided to support curriculum implementation.
However, there was also evidence of teachers striving to locate and modify resources, and problems encountered with carrying out assessment and recording and reporting assessment. Some teachers were critical of frequent changes to the reporting of student achievement. In addition, there was a degree of uncertainty over how to cover some of the curriculum content. Primary teachers explained that although there had been a refocusing on literacy and numeracy, they still felt that they needed to cover the curriculum in a balanced way. In all but a few cases, primary schools were structured to ensure each curriculum area, including student achievement, was planned, implemented and evaluated systematically. Since primary teachers usually taught across the entire curriculum, this standardisation entailed increased meetings, policies, paperwork, and supervision. Small, rural primary schools stood out as having their own identities based upon school traditions, and in some respects, appeared in contrast with urban case study schools. Low staff numbers, the fact that principals were also classroom teachers, and the need to meet the same expectations as larger schools where work could be divided among more staff, raised further issues of work intensification. However, on a more positive note, the rural traditions and customs of such activities as agricultural events, calf club days, and the like, have survived through incorporation within the broader curriculum.
There was also an impression gained by the researchers that the new national curriculum had "settled down," that teachers were now more familiar with the documents they used, and that schools and departments had made a lot of headway in constructing plans that linked national curriculum to classroom programmes.
One of the issues that became apparent during data collection which had an impact upon both primary and secondary schools was that there were some reports of high student turnover - in any one year - sometimes referred to as transience. High turnover, it was said, impacted – sometimes severely – upon curriculum implementation. Teachers spoke of the serious consequences of frequent changes of school. Students were affected by a reduced continuity of study and reduced learning experiences. Carefully planned and sequenced learning experiences were required for sustained learning that built upon previous learning. For teachers, a frequently changing class of students meant that their goal of connected learning was difficult – if not impossible – to achieve for all students.
A number of issues impacted more specifically upon secondary schools, although there was considerable commonality between primary and secondary. First, many secondary teachers thought that effective curriculum implementation depended on an individual teacher's enthusiasm and commitment. These qualities were seen as critical to effective curriculum implementation and, to a large degree, overcame organisational and other constraints. That is, while a great deal of work has been done in schools to provide the facilities, resources and plans, it was still the prerogative of the teacher in front of the class who ultimately, "put it all together" to facilitate the particular lesson. School leaders valued teachers who demonstrated the qualities mentioned – enthusiasm and commitment – and valued those who used their own initiative and enterprise to make learning relevant and interesting for students.
One curriculum issue was the increasing trend towards dividing curriculum content into modules of learning. Some teachers argued that modules did not allow for the scaffolding of learning units (modules) required to accumulate long-term, connected, content understanding. This aspect of curriculum design was found in need of further investigation, to see whether units were being connected in logical ways by students. Another related finding with regard to modules highlighted by the research was that the module approach led to earlier specialisation (as early as Year 7 in some cases). There was also positive teacher reaction to modules, with some teachers seeing them as setting out clearly what was expected of students.
For secondary teachers, there was widespread concern over NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement), as teachers came to grips with what the changes were, and how they themselves [teachers] needed to change to respond to the shifts in NCEA. It should be remembered that as well as NCEA, each new curriculum statement has caused teachers to rethink their approaches. For example, secondary teachers also reported difficulties with fitting all the curriculum demands into a school's existing organisation, including timetabling. There were also related curriculum issues, some of which have already been alluded to above.
Finally, professional development was seen as needing to focus on the curriculum needs of teachers. Teachers emphasised that professional development was crucial to teachers' learning about a new curriculum statement and the methods to implement it.
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