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High expectations

This section draws together research, digital resources, and examples to support leaders and teachers as they consider the high expectations principle.

About the high expectations principle

High expectations is one of eight principles in The New Zealand Curriculum that provide a foundation for schools' decision making. The principle of high expectations can be used to guide formal curriculum policy and planning, classroom programmes, and teaching practice.

Curriculum document.

"The curriculum supports and empowers all students to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of their individual circumstances."

The New Zealand Curriculum, p. 9.

"The high expectations principle means holding high expectations for all students relative to achievement. This means a genuine belief that all students can achieve much higher levels than they currently are, and then putting the learning and action plans in place that make sure that students actually get there." 

Professor Christine Rubie-Davies

Why is the high expectations principle important?

Research shows a strong correlation between teacher expectations and student outcomes. If teachers have high expectations for all students, then all students are likely to be challenged and extended, leading to positive learning outcomes for all.

Timperley and Phillips (2003)¹ point out the links between teachers’ expectations and the learning opportunities they offer to students. They suggest that teachers’ expectations for student achievement become their goals for the students and shape their daily classroom decisions and actions.

Schools and teachers with high expectations unleash the potential of all students, regardless of their background, ethnicities, abilities, or gender. They enable all students to accelerate their learning and achieve personal excellence. 

"It should be the aim of all teachers to ensure that every inkling of talent that students possess is nurtured. For me, this begins and ends with having high expectations for all students, decreasing the inequities associated with low expectations, and showing all students that we care. The positive teacher attitudes and equitable teaching strategies of high expectation teachers lead, not only to student academic success, but also to high levels of motivation, engagement, self-efficacy, and incremental notions of intelligence."

Professor Rubie-Davies, Becoming a High Expectation Teacher, 2014, p. 230.

“They have so much faith in you, almost like the expectations are so high that you don’t want to let them down. So you keep pushing yourself until you get there.”

“She did everything she could and she gave me extra help and just really believed that I could do it, and I felt as if if I hadn’t achieved the marks that she wanted me to then I’d let her down.”

Year 13 students, describing their high expectation teachers

What does the high expectations principle look like in schools and classrooms?

The Education Review Office has examined the extent to which the principles of The New Zealand Curriculum are evident in schools’ curricula and enacted in classrooms. They found that high expectations is the most evident principle in New Zealand schools. However, in many schools, this principle is not embedded deeply enough to enable all students to achieve their full potential.

The statements below, derived from the ERO reports, describe how the high expectations principle can be enacted in school and classroom curriculum. You can use these statements to reflect on your own practice.

In a high expectations school

In a school with high expectations:

  • teachers have high expectations for individual students regardless of their ethnicity, social background, or ability
  • assessment for learning practices, such as students reflecting on learning and setting goals, are embedded in teacher and student practice
  • leaders and teachers promote a culture of respect, caring, support, and safety including providing a range of programmes to cater for students with diverse learning strengths and needs
  • parents and whānau are encouraged to contribute their perspectives about the future direction of the school
  • a partnership between home and school provides parents and whānau with regular feedback on student achievement and progress.

Derived from The New Zealand Curriculum Principles: Foundations for Curriculum Decision-Making (July 2012) and Directions for Learning: The New Zealand Curriculum Principles, and Teaching as Inquiry (May 2011)

In a high expectations classroom

In a classroom with high expectations:

  • students are viewed as capable learners and there is a focus on lifting achievement and accelerating progress
  • the cultural heritage, strengths, and abilities of students are valued, promoted, and celebrated
  • teachers seek ways to know students well so that they can tailor the teaching programme to suit them – this includes building a relationship and analysing assessment information
  • teachers eliminate any barriers to the successful involvement of students
  • students are given information about their achievement and discuss this with teachers and their parents
  • students work with their teachers to develop success criteria for learning tasks or units of work
  • students self monitor their own progress and set high personal and academic goals
  • students make choices about topics to study, or pose questions for investigation
  • exemplars and rubrics are used to guide future learning and self assessment
  • students are fully engaged in their learning and their contributions to the programme are valued and encouraged.

Derived from The New Zealand Curriculum Principles: Foundations for Curriculum Decision-Making (July 2012) and Directions for Learning: The New Zealand Curriculum Principles, and Teaching as Inquiry (May 2011)

High expectations for all students

In order to plan and provide quality learning programmes, teachers need to get to know their students. Teachers can work with students, parents, and whānau to create a learner profile. This sits alongside assessment data and helps teachers to build relationships with students, addresses assumptions, and allows students to express their aspirations and interests.

Teachers need to examine their own assumptions about students and their capabilities, and challenge themselves to have high expectations for all. This is especially so for students who have English as a second language, students who need extra support, those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and Māori and Pasifika learners. The abilities of these students may be masked by special education needs, language factors, or behavioural issues. In addition, they may have low confidence and belief in their own abilities. 

BES Exemplar 1 - Ngā Kete Raukura - He Tauira 1 focuses on two teachers at a small, multicultural primary school who took part in professional learning on developing their classroom learning communities. The exemplar shows how the teachers changed their expectations as they observed their students’ improved mathematical proficiency.

Have you seen?

NZC Update 22 – The Principle of High Expectations
This Update supports schools to explore and enact the curriculum principle of high expectations. It includes research, guiding questions, case studies, and useful resources.

Identifying and removing barriers to enable success

When schools and teachers have high expectations for all their students, they recognise the barriers that might get in the way and seek to reduce them through employing a range of pedagogical approaches and initiatives. The Teacher Expectation Project (TEP)² and earlier research has found that teachers who have high expectations of students incorporate the following key elements into their classrooms:

  • Flexible student grouping and a variety of learning experiences are made available to all students. Low-level, repetitive activities often assigned to low-achieving students are not evident in these classes.
  • A cohesive class environment is created with high levels of teacher care.
  • Teachers use assessment information to set goals regularly with each student and progress is monitored frequently with feedback provided.
  • Student interests are taken into account when planning learning activities. 
  • Students are given some autonomy over their learning through setting goals and selecting activities to work on – for example with "must-do can-do" options.

Students' belief in their ability affects their confidence in tackling tasks. Provide students with clear problem solving strategies and use peer to peer models, such as tuakana-teina, to build student confidence. Recognising students' strengths and providing leadership opportunities supports them to build confidence in their abilities.

Value and utilise the expertise and skills of parents, whānau, and groups in the community. Identify positive, strong role models from the school community to speak with and motivate students.


¹Timperley, H., & Phillips, G. (2003). Linking teacher and student learning to improve professional development in systemic reform. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(6), 643 - 658.

²Rubie-Davies, C. (2014). Becoming a High Expectation Teacher: Raising the Bar.

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Published on: 27 Mar 2012