How Competency-Based is New Zealand?

This is the final article in the series Baskets of Knowledge from Aotearoa New Zealand, which highlights insights from a totally different education system about what is possible in transforming our education system. Read the first article here.

When I returned from Aotearoa New Zealand, I was frequently asked, “How competency-based is New Zealand?” It was never an easy question to answer because we’ve created a working definition and ten distinguishing features of competency-based that may or may not be the right ones. Furthermore, there are at least three core drivers or bar-raising policy goals that are shaping our understanding of competency-based education:

  • Redesigning schools and learning experiences around what we know about how children learn rather than continuing to operate upon a set of out-of-date beliefs and mindsets that form the traditional system.
  • Responding to changes in society and the economy that require a system that develops a broader set of knowledge and skills for student success: academic knowledge and skills, transferable skills (deeper learning and higher order skills), and lifelong learning.
  • Creating a more equitable system that monitors both growth and achievement to ensure that every student has opportunity to discover their potential and have doors opened for them upon graduation.

NZ’s Tomorrow’s School policy that dramatically reduced the bureaucracy and established school autonomy made it nearly impossible to answer the question of “how competency-based” it is.  No matter how many times I asked, unless there was research to refer to, no one in NZ would speak about standard practice. With autonomy comes variation. I was never able to get a sense of how many schools are using relatively traditional instructional strategies as compared to those in pursuit of modern pedagogy and modern learning environments. Thus, I can refer to the system and how it is designed with insights gleaned from discussions with fifty or more educators about actual implementation and practice.

Before I dive into this reflection, I want to restate that it is best to think about how NZ can inform state policy rather than stretching the analysis to federal policy and systems. To help me make sense of what I was learning I used Colorado as an example: The population, geographic size (but not shape), racial/ethnic mix and GDP are all close enough that one can imagine transferring some or all of the NZ policies to Colorado. If Colorado, why not any other state?

To what degree is the system shaped around the research on learning?

The National Curriculum consisting of the NZ Curriculum for English-medium schools and the Te Marautanga o Aotearoa for Māori-medium school is deeply rooted in the research on how children learn. The Curriculum includes a description of effective pedagogy:

The Ministry of Education has strategically linked the investments in building new schools for communities responding to population growth or to the facility crisis caused by the Christchurch earthquake to what is referred to as ‘modern pedagogy.’ There is a strong belief in NZ that personalized learning requires flexible space and collaborative teaching models. However, everyone I spoke with said that there were schools that were very traditional and that the high decile (high socioeconomic) secondary schools were often quite traditional with teachers using lecture as the primary mode of instruction.

In every school I visited, all of which were using or starting to use this modern pedagogy, students were actively engaged and classrooms were designed for flexibility with students scattered on the floor, at tables, in quiet rooms around the edge of the classroom, or tucked into small-size marae. Almost every principal suggested that there is still a tension between this pedagogical approach and the expectation that all of the academic objectives in eight domains will be covered. I believe that this tension closely resembles what is described as the trade-offs between deeper learning and covering the curriculum (or standards) in the U.S. I began to wonder if we need to revisit how we organize academic domains. The structure certainly makes sense to develop deep domain instructional knowledge. But is there a better way to organize what we expect students to know and do that would be better for motivating, engaging, and maximizing learning?  

There also appears to be some misalignment with the assumption that students are expected to learn all the objective in eight domains with the NCEA and university admissions. To offer a more student-centered approach, secondary students can select the domain and standards-based credits they earn to achieve NCEA levels based on their desired next steps after secondary school. However, that leaves the secondary schools to struggle how to offer the broad exposure to all eight domains. Tricky.

To what degree are your state policies explicitly shaped around the research on learning? Perhaps a review might be helpful?


To what degree is the education system designed to develop a broader set of knowledge and skills for student success?

As described above, the NZ Curriculum outlines objectives in eight domains. In addition, it establishes the expectation that students will learn how to learn and that students will develop Key Competencies. In the schools I visited that were using modern pedagogy, their attention was on helping students learn the skills to manage their learning. This was most evident in the primary schools. Only a few schools used the Key Competencies explicitly. Everyone I spoke with in schools and at the national level was aware that there were policy signals that the academic learning was more important than the Key Competencies in terms of academic achievement in the NCEA and in the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement. Yet no one wanted to or had well-developed strategies to measure the degree to which students were learning how to learn.

The schools using modern pedagogy were creating opportunities for all students to engage deeply in their learning and develop higher level skills. The place where I thought there might be some misalignment is that the structure of the NCEA is designed so that the endorsements of Merit and Excellence appear to be based on higher levels of Bloom’s. Thus, the expectation that every student will reach proficiency may not be leading to every student being exposed in secondary school to deeper learning.

To what degree is equity improved?

To what degree are there school cultures of inclusion and belonging?

New Zealand feels like it is years and years ahead of the U.S. in putting into place significant and meaningful strategies to ensure all students and whanau (extended families) feel respected and that they belong. It starts with the decision in the 1970s to honor the Treaty of Waitangi, including recognition of three national languages: English, Māori, and NZ sign language.

The Ministry of Education and all the major education organizations have taken honoring the Treaty of Waitangi very seriously. Students can use Māori in most of the NCEA assessments. There are Māori immersion schools, and most, if not all, schools offer classes in Te Reo Māori. Schools use Māori values, language, and cultural rituals. Teachers are expected to be culturally responsive to Māori and Pasifika students. The National Curriculum is made up of two curriculum, one for English-medium and one for Māori-medium schools. Te Mauratanga o Aotearoa is not simply a translation of the English-medium curriculum. It was developed independently to establish the expectations for Māori students.

Imagine if your state decided to be multicultural and embrace the local Native American languages and values as an act of reconciliation. Imagine if your state said that by 2030, all schools will be able to offer bilingual programs in which every student is expected to speak two languages. It’s difficult to imagine the federal government in today’s America being able to take this step, but certainly a state or district could take giant steps toward establishing policies of inclusion and belonging.


However, problems remain. Most Māori and Pasifika students are taught in English-medium schools, with the problems they encounter well-documented in research by Russell Bishop and Mere Berryman. Patterns similar to the racial inequity in the U.S are mirrored in NZ with Māori and Pasifika educational attainment lower than Pakeha (European). There are multiple strategies in place to address the issue. (See series on Pt. England.)

To what degree do schools meet students and provide differentiated and timely support?

One of the most interesting dynamics in New Zealand is that they have designed their system to recognize that not every student is at the same place. Whereas in the U.S., most schools start every semester in a curriculum with a scope, sequence, and pacing guide for “covering the curriculum” or content, New Zealand assumes that students are going to be at a different points. Thus, they have separated out age-based grades, referred to as Year 2 or Year 8 from curricular levels that stretch over several years. The expectation is that students should be somewhere on that band.

Although I don’t know how the traditional schools handle this, the modern pedagogy schools are very carefully monitoring students with gaps or who are not progressing. There is more attention and instruction as needed. There are efforts to create high engagement and/or culturally responsive approaches. Overall, teacher judgment is a central part of the NZ education system, and in most schools I visited, there were opportunities for teachers to talk together about student work, consider different instructional strategies, and pursue inquiry into what might be effective in helping students.

That all seemed great until I realized that there also appears to be a belief that if a student starts at a lower curricular level, it is expected that they will end their secondary education at a lower level. Students are of course entering secondary school at different points, and in the first year or two of secondary education, this level of flexibility is continued. However, in Year 11 students enter into the NCEA phase of their education. Suddenly they are seeking to earn standard-based credits at Proficiency, Merit, or Excellence. Although the policy doesn’t require a linear implementation, most schools organize around NCEA Level 1 in Year 11, NCEA Level 2 in Year 12, and NCEA Level 3 in Year 13.

Every secondary principal I spoke with was concerned about equity but also assumed that if students entered at lower curricular levels, they would end up with either lower endorsements (and lower depth of learning) or not be able to earn Level 2 or Level 3. Only one principal talked about extending into Year 14 so that students entering at lower levels could have the opportunity for the highest attainment.

This belief isn’t particularly different than American schools except our equity discussions have created a great deal of agitation: What do we need to do to make sure that all students, regardless of where they start, are able to achieve college and career readiness? Essentially there is a line, some call it a floor, and certainly a very opaque one, that we want all students to cross.

I wonder if we could develop an international approach to thinking about how to meet students where they are that produces increased growth and higher levels of achievement.

To what degree is there reliability and consistency?

Another place that NZ shines compared to the U.S. is in its attention to moderation. Although it doesn’t appear to be as well-developed in the primary schools (and may contribute to some of the issues described above), the system of moderated assessments managed by the NZQA means that the certificates of achievement mean something and are portable so students can continue to build their knowledge and skills in other settings.

Every school had slightly different ways of managing moderation internally. Similar to the U.S., teachers enter with some bare-bones theoretical knowledge and rarely have the domain specific understanding of the standards, proficiency, and instructional strategies. Thus, schools invest in developing teachers during the first two years. There were a variety of ways of organizing staffing so that teachers with more expertise took on leadership roles, including helping to review student work and moderate credentialing of learning. Sometimes it was a department head, sometimes it was an assistant principal, sometimes it was an additional role a teacher took on in return for additional income.

Several primary educators mentioned that the policy to introduce standards, annual summative assessments, and labeling students based on where they were in relationship to standards was destructive in some ways, but was also helping in creating more fine-tuned understanding of the academic objectives outlined by the Ministry of Education in the NZ Curriculum.

How does the structure support flexibility so that schools can be more responsive and continually improve to reach the three drivers described above?

One of the early critical policies was Tomorrow’s Schools, which minimized bureaucracy and empowered schools with autonomy. There were bumps along the way as principals suddenly found themselves dealing with facilities, budgets, and hiring as well as instructional strategies. Thirty years later, most boards of trustees and principals have built their capacity. However, it remains difficult difficult to intervene in low-performing schools given the respect and autonomy awarded to the boards. It is worth considering why we distrust that educators can build the capacity to effectively run schools. Why are we always trying to create rules, regulations, and prescribe behaviors?

There is also the sophistication of NZ’s balanced multi-agency policy infrastructure. The Ministry sets expectations and provides funding. NZQA manages the process of certifying learning for secondary education and approves most of the tertiary programs that provide certificates and diplomas to ensure that levels of achievement have meaning. With each certificate having value, they are more portable and stackable. The Education Reform Office takes on the role of quality assurance through school review. The NZCER provides the research that allows policymakers and other agencies to understand how the system is developing and where areas of vulnerability are emerging. Again, it’s hard to imagine a federal system that might be so carefully balanced, but much easier to imagine a state-wide one.


In closing, I think it is worth asking another and somewhat more challenging (and possibly more valuable) question: Are there aspects or lessons from New Zealand that challenge our conception of what might make an effective competency-based system? Imagine if a state added up all the money spent on the education system infrastructure — accreditation, testing, curriculum, professional learning, etc. — and then redistributed it or reorganized the functions of pre-existing organizations. Imagine a system that would:

  • build trust and a culture of inclusion and respect;
  • invest in the professional capacity of educators;
  • provide schools with more autonomy to respond to the interests and needs of their communities students and professional goals of teachers; and,
  • provide a moderated system of assessments that provides effective feedback to students and teachers.

Imagine a system designed to ensure every student receives the feedback and instructional support they need and have multiple opportunities to revise, learn, and reach for the highest levels of educational attainment.

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