Like the United States and many other countries around the world, New Zealand has been stymied for decades by achievement gaps between students of different ancestry. In New Zealand’s case, concern centers on students who are Maori, members of tribes that inhabited its islands hundreds of years before Capt. James Cook put them on the map in the 1700s.
Maori students make up nearly half of all schoolchildren in a nation of 4 million. Yet, compared with their peers of European heritage, most of whom are of British descent, Maori students drop out of school, fail courses, and rack up suspensions at disproportionate rates.
In an effort to erase such disparities, a group of New Zealand researchers from the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, and the Poutama Pounamu Research Center, in Tauranga, decided to seek solutions from the source: Maori students themselves. “What limits your educational success?” they asked the students. “What makes an ideal teacher?”
The stories they got back led to a long-term research project that is starting to produce notable achievement gains for Maori and non-Maori students alike. In the process, some experts have noted, what these researchers are learning may offer lessons for educators trying to address similar kinds of educational gaps within their own borders.
“Certainly, the core educational issues are the same with African-American kids,” said Peter C. Murrell, Jr., an assistant professor of education at Northeastern University in Boston. Likewise, other experts add, for Latino, Native American students, or almost any comparatively low-achieving minority group.
Once on the verge of extinction, Maori language and culture underwent a revitalization in New Zealand beginning in the 1960s.
Those efforts led to the creation of “language nests,” preschool programs aimed at immersing Maori children in their native tongue and cultural traditions at an early age. The success of the language nests achieved a measure of renown in international education circles and, in turn, gave birth to Maori-centered elementary schools.
Still, 95 percent of Maori attend regular schools, according to Russell H. Bishop, the University of Waikato education professor who heads the research project. And in those schools, in classes taught largely by teachers who look different from them, Maori children continue to flounder.
“Our concern is that mainstream education is more about maintaining the status quo than in trying to change it,” Mr. Bishop said, describing his project earlier this spring to researchers attending the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco.
To better the odds for Maori students in non-Maori schools, Mr. Bishop and his research colleagues, most of whom are of Maori descent themselves, launched the Te Kotahitanga project. Kotahitanga is Maori for “unity,” and the researchers borrowed from a philosophy that grew out of the native group’s cultural-revitalization movement. Known as Kaupapa Maori, the theory emphasizes both self-determination and interdependence.
The researchers also enlisted a Maori elder, Rangiwhakaehu Walker, to help lead the project.
“The role of the elder is to ensure the world is made better for their grandchildren,” said Mr. Bishop, “and to ensure that we keep to that agenda.”
The New Zealand Ministry of Education supported the effort with $6.8 million—roughly equal to $3.2 million in U.S. money—and the researchers in 2001 began interviewing 14- and 15-year-old Maori students, their teachers, and principals throughout the country’s North Island, where the highest concentrations of Maori students live.
The students offered sobering commentary on their own school experiences. “Some teachers pick on us Maori,” one boy said in a videotaped interview. “They say bad things to us.”
“They blame us for stealing when things go missing,” said another student. “Just because we’re a C class, don’t expect us to be dumb,” another added, referring to a mid- to low-level academic track in New Zealand’s school system.
For their part, the teachers and administrators interviewed tended to zero in on the educational opportunities and expectations lacking in students’ home lives—a view that U.S. researchers, in their own studies of frequently marginalized student groups, refer to as “cultural deficit” thinking. Moreover, the educators offered no suggestions on how to solve the problem.
The students, on the other hand, put forth some concrete ideas. “Look pleased to see us,” they said. “Tell us quietly if you don’t like what we’re doing,” and “Listen to our opinions.”
From the students’ input, the researchers constructed an “effective-teaching profile” that emphasized building relationships in the class, interactive teaching techniques, and group work, among other strategies.
The scholars’ next move was to invite educators from 12 schools to meet with them at local marae, which are traditional Maori meeting houses. There, the academics shared the students’ stories and hashed out ways to put the teaching profile into practice.
“What’s fabulous about the stories is that they help us get away from arguments about why these young people should be getting special treatment,” Mr. Bishop said.
Changes Pay Off
The project also recruited experienced teachers from the participating schools to provide coaching on making classrooms more welcoming to Maori pupils.
The coaches observed the teachers at least once during each 10-week school term over the course of an academic year. Teachers within the schools also met regularly to analyze attendance records and other data gauging the teenagers’ levels of classroom engagement.
“This gives teachers a means to do something they always wanted to do,” said Robbie Lamont, a teacher-facilitator for the project at Keri-Keri High School in the northernmost reaches of New Zealand. Although some teachers have resisted the changes, she said, “few stay in the resistance mode.”
The classroom observations showed that teachers began to change their teaching styles, student absences decreased, and test scores rose for both Maori and non-Maori students over the New Zealand school year that ran from February to December 2005.
When researchers dissected the gains further, they found something else: The improvements were especially large among the lowest-achieving Maori students. The pattern had been the same the previous year, when researchers implemented the program in a smaller number of schools.
Teacher coaches such as Ms. Lamont also noticed other, subtle changes taking place in the classes they visited in 2005. “In one particular class, at the beginning of the year, all the Maori students would sit at the back of the room,” she said. “As the year went by, I was watching them slowly integrate themselves into the class.”
Mr. Bishop said the researchers are expanding the program into 18 more schools in 2007 and are continuing to track students’ progress in the original Te Kotahitanga schools. The researchers’ hope—and expectation—is that the improvements will continue beyond the three- to five-year point at which the gains made in many educational experiments often flatten out.
“We looked overseas for a solution to Maori students’ underachievement when, ironically, it’s been under our nose this whole time,” Mr. Bishop said. “It has come from the students themselves.”
Northeastern University’s Mr. Murrell suggested that the New Zealanders now should use their techniques to bring about deeper, and more continuous, changes in schools.
“I would like to see a project that actually builds in the capacity to continue doing that inquiry into culture for the sake of organizing all the learning and teaching practices within a school,” Mr. Murrell said. “This project is a good first cut.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as Project Yields Gains for New Zealand’s Maori Pupils