Change agents: emerging evidence on middle-tier instructional leadership

A collaboration between Education Development Trust, IIEP-UNESCO and the Education Commission

Education policymakers around the world have long shared a key priority: achieving high-quality teaching and learning at scale. This requires strong delivery systems at every level. While there is significant evidence on the important roles played by teachers and leaders, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role – and potential – of middle-tier professionals such as supervisors, instructional coaches and mentors at the regional, district and sub-district level. These actors are key intermediaries in education systems, but their role in teaching and learning improvement has often been overlooked in research and policy debates. In our latest report, together with IIEP-UNESCO and the Education Commission, we highlight the potential of these middle-tier actors as a critical part of the ‘machine’ for quality teaching and learning at scale.

The ‘middle tier’, although frequently overlooked, forms a key part of education systems around the world. Middle-tier professionals – such as advisors, supervisors, pedagogical coaches and teacher mentors – working directly with schools and teachers are increasingly acting as a key link between policy and practice, helping to introduce and embed successful policies in schools and classrooms across the regions or districts that they work in. In this working paper, we review recent evidence on the role of middle-tier actors and the ways in which they are helping to deliver improvements in teaching and learning.

Our analysis suggests that middle-tier professionals are delivering these improvements in four key ways: by providing support, opportunities for collaboration, accountability and monitoring, and instructional direction and system alignment. However, the evidence also shows the importance of balancing these roles – supportive roles, for example, must be carefully balanced with oversight and accountability to ensure the best outcomes for teachers and learners.

While the potential of these middle-tier actors seems increasingly clear, the reality in many countries is that their capacity is often constrained, for example by historical structures or recruitment and training practices. Such barriers may be challenging to address, but our analysis suggests that when innovative strategies are put in place to strengthen these roles and workforce systems, the pace of change can be increased, and middle-tier professionals can become lynchpins in education reform.

The emerging evidence on education systems beginning to maximise the potential of the middle tier – in contexts as diverse as Ontario, Rio de Janeiro, Bihar and South Africa – is truly exciting, and holds real promise for education reform. This working paper forms part of a larger research collaboration between Education Development Trust and IIEP-UNESCO investigating the potential of these actors as catalysts for change in local school reforms. To find out more, please click here to read an interview with two of the co-authors, Ella Page (Researcher at Education Development Trust) and Barbara Tournier (a researcher at IIEP).  You can also read two of the case studies from this research collaboration here and a report of the full findings from this collaboration will be published in 2021.