A talk with the author: change agents at the middle-tier of education systems

23 November 2020

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From Ontario (Canada) to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), there are untold stories behind many of the recent most impactful and sustainable education reforms. These include middle-tier professionals –school advisors, supervisors, pedagogical coaches, and teacher mentors – who are increasingly acting as the link between policy and practice. By working directly with schools and teachers, it is these professionals who are making sure that new policies are introduced – and nurtured – within classrooms worldwide.

A new working paper, published by IIEP-UNESCO, Education Development Trust (EdDevTrust), and the Education Commission, presents emerging evidence on why the middle part of education systems – the regional, district, and sub-district levels – is a critical part of the ‘machine’ for quality teaching and learning at scale.

Two of the co-authors, Barbara Tournier, IIEP researcher, and Ella Page, EdDevTrust researcher, explain:   

This research highlights the value of the middle-tier workforce in education systems. Why is this so important today?

Ella Page: How to achieve high quality teaching and learning at scale is a major challenge faced by education systems internationally. The middle-tier have huge potential as change agents: they have a unique view of an entire district or region while maintaining a close relationship with schools. The middle-tier can bring new ideas and practices into schools and classrooms and can provide the coaching and support we know is vital for effective teacher professional development.

Barbara Tournier: In this sense, the middle-tier is critical in acting as a lynchpin between the local and the national level, and can help to inform policy from the ground up, as well as to translate often complex policies from the top down. Yet, research has traditionally focused on teachers and head teachers, somewhat omitting levels above. For education systems to be effective there needs to be a continuum of professionals all along the delivery chain, as well as support structures available to teachers at various levels.

Can you explain the link between middle-tier professionals and improved teaching and learning?

EP: Absolutely, our review of the literature finds a number of promising ways that middle-tier professionals can work towards improved teaching and learning. The middle-tier can develop skills, facilitate a focus on school improvement priorities, and promote professional collaboration by shifting from a focus on compliance and control to providing continuous professional support to teachers and school leaders. This can include the development of professional learning communities or other kinds of school networks, both of which have been shown to improve teaching.

How can middle-tier professionals be better supported so that they can act as change agents?

BT: To be successful, middle-tier professionals need to be recognized as legitimate and trusted as practitioners themselves. This is key to instilling a culture of trust and collaboration between teachers and across schools. Recruitments at this level need to be carefully thought through so as to have the right profiles on board. That is the first step. The second is to make sure that those professionals are not working in isolation, that they too are supported and accountable. Last but not least, they must be given the means to carry out their work effectively.

EP: It’s true that the middle-tier has often been neglected in education reforms, but there are some really exciting emerging practices. This involved developing individual leadership skills and collective efficacy alongside a shift in power dynamics. As shown in our paper, this enabled middle-tier professionals to view themselves as problem-solving impactful agents of change. For example, in Bihar (India), we saw how changes in the relationship and engagements between middle-tier professionals –at the cluster level –and District Mangers led to an increased sense of ownership, enabling officials to find solutions and support schools more effectively with a new pedagogy that was part of a reform to improve standards in primary education.

Spotlight on Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)

"Every quarter I meet with the best performing schools for lunch and discuss why they succeeded, and the worst performing schools…and together they plan how to transform learning in that school."

This example from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is about school-to-school pairing and collaboration. Former Secretary of Schools Claudia Costin would meet with principals of the best-performing schools to discuss their success, and with the leaders of the struggling schools to identify what was going wrong. Costin said it was not a one-way transmission of expertise, but rather a respectful, collaborative relationship based on a shared commitment to the students of the area.

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