Case study: Te Kotahitanga
A programme that shows promise in addressing structural barriers to ethnic equality in the education sector is Te Kotahitanga, a professional development programme designed for secondary school teachers. Launched in 2001 by the Ministry of Education, it was developed in response to persistent levels of underachievement among Māori students in English-medium schools.
The aim of the programme is to improve Māori student achievement by focusing on culturally-responsive teaching pedagogy within classrooms, putting emphasis on the teacher’s role in power-sharing, creating classrooms where students’ cultural identities are affirmed and student-teacher relations are interactive and inter-dependent.
While not explicitly developed to address structural discrimination, Te Kotahitanga inherently seeks to transform teacher pedagogy and school structures in an effort to improve Maori student achievement, thereby addressing embedded ethnic inequalities in secondary education.
According to an interview respondent, Te Kotahitanga “encourages teachers to step away from structural discrimination practices and examine their own positioning through a professional learning and development model.”
Russell Bishop and Mere Berryman, co-creators of the programme, found that the dominance of deficit theorising by teachers, both consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate teachers’ already low expectations of Māori students’ ability. Students who feel their teachers have low or negative expectations of them will respond negatively, resulting in frustrating consequences for both students and teachers.
The main consequence of such deficit theorising for the quality of teachers’ relationships with Maori students and for classroom interactions is that teachers tend to have fatalistic attitudes ... This in turn creates a downward spiralling, self-fulfilling prophecy of Maori student under achievement and failure.143
Bishop, Berryman, T Cavanagh and L Teddy (Bishop et al) explain how society-wide power imbalances are played out in classrooms and their impacts on marginalized students:
Power imbalances need to be examined by educators at all levels in terms of their own cultural assumptions and a consideration of how they might be participants in the systematic marginalization of students in their classrooms, their schools and the wider system.144
Through opportunities for critical teacher self-reflection and repositioning, classroom observations and feedback, co-construction meetings and shadow coaching, the programme seeks to address power imbalances and resultant levels of educational underachievement.
Bishop et al, further describe the focus of the programme:
The project was based on the notion that when teachers are able to engage in critical reflection about the images they have of marginalized students and the resultant relationships they have with these students, they are more likely to be able to engage in power-sharing practices. This means that teachers who espouse and enact power-sharing theories of practice will better enable previously marginalized students to more successfully participate and engage in educational systems on their own culturally constituted terms.145
Bishop et al found that the quality of teacher-student relationships and interactions was a central factor in improving Māori student achievement. Shifting teaching pedagogy and developing meaningful relationships between teachers and students dramatically improves Māori academic achievement. Subsequent evaluation of the programme has found promising results, including improved numeracy levels and increasing proportions of Māori students attaining NCEA 1.146
Recent research on the Te Kotahitanga programme has shown that shifting teaching pedagogy and developing meaningful relationships with Māori students and with whānau improves educational achievement not only for Māori students, but also for Pacific, Asian and new migrant students as well. The research suggests that teachers who are able to implement culturally responsive teaching practices in their classroom also benefit these other students, through a greater awareness of both the teacher and student as culturally-located individuals.147
Factors for Success
Through our interviews, several key factors were identified that made Te Kotahitanga an effective intervention addressing student achievement and educational inequalities:
Tailoring programmes and initiatives to the specific needs of Māori students, and making these initiatives visible at all levels of the school
Ongoing evaluation measures
Developing communities of practice through “co-construction” and regular meetings with other teachers across subject areas to discuss Māori student achievement
Effective communication and engagement with parents and whānau, with ongoing parent and whānau involvement and participation in school life
Consultation with Māori staff and whānau
Support from school leadership teams and boards of trustees
While the Ministry of Education firmly supports the Te Kotahitanga programme, its sustainability depends on inter-agency support and a cultural shift in how such intervention programmes are designed and implemented. While the programme is bottom-up in its approach and process, it needs to be met by a top-down commitment. Thus sustainability of both the programme and the underlying principles inherent in the programme depend on support from school leadership (principals, boards of trustees). In order for the programme to achieve sustainability, experience in implementing Te Kotahitanga indicates that it is critical to reach a “tipping point” where the majority of teachers understand the Te Kotahitanga principles: ‘it’s not about reaching a set number of schools, because turnover in schools can be high. Rather, it’s about re-culturing teachers and principals and shifting notions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’.