So how can we create more of it?

Last December, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released providing a rich analysis of global education systems performance. Among many factors that the OECD identified as contributing to successful or improving education systems, such as more equitable allocations of resources and high social regard for teachers, is strong leadership capacity among teachers and school leaders. The importance of leadership to successful or improving schools and systems has been corroborated by McKinsey, which found in a groundbreaking 2010 analysis that “leadership is essential not only in sparking reform but in sustaining it…improving systems actively cultivate the next generation of system leaders.”

Yet when it comes to understanding how leadership contributes to improving education systems as a whole, and how to best develop those leaders we so urgently need, we are largely in the dark. Despite rich bodies of research in other areas of education, we don’t know enough about the role leadership plays although we maintain its central to creating and sustaining positive change.

At Teach For All, our theory of change is premised on the belief that an individual who successfully teaches in a high-need community will be inspired to a lifetime of leadership on behalf of children. Through teaching, they come to understand the complex challenges that face their students, see first-hand the incredible potential of all children and develop a sense of determination to help address the range of inequities holding students back. These individuals, provided with leadership development and supportive networks, grow into a constellation of diverse, interconnected leaders who work at all levels inside and outside education systems and share a commitment to improving outcomes for children. Although many of the alumni of our network partners – from Teach For India to EnsenaPeru – stay in schools as teachers or school leaders, others tackle systemic inequities through serving as policymakers, community leaders, advocates, researchers, social entrepreneurs, or social service providers.

And yet the amount of research available to help deepen our understanding of, and commitment to, developing collective leadership for ensuring educational opportunity is not commensurate with the vital role it plays in supporting improved education systems. So as a first step, we need to build greater awareness around the role of leadership and the need for more research.

Over the past year, we have begun to see a growing level of interest regarding the importance of leadership from institutions ranging from the Brookings Institution to the World Bank. And last year, in its groundbreaking Learning Generation report, the Education Commission stated that achieving its goal of ensuring every child has access to quality primary and secondary education by 2030 “will require strong collective leadership at the national and global level and across many sectors…mobilizing, empowering, and sustaining this leadership is vital.” But more broadly, the global education community has not yet focused adequate attention on the power of developing collective leadership or supporting the research necessary to understanding the full range of effective approaches.

We also need to pursue a diverse portfolio of research approaches if we are to understand how individual and collective leadership contributes to sustainable system change. Randomized control trials, or RCTs, have received growing attention in the past five years and are starting to provide more and better evidence of what’s working at the classroom and school level. However, RCTs alone aren’t sufficient to explore all of the complex questions around the role of leadership in creating and sustaining system change; RCTs are difficult to execute as a result of the complex interactions and factors contributing to improvements in education. Alternative evaluation approaches such as quasi-experimental impact evaluation and qualitative insights from network analysis and case studies may be better suited to capture the impact of individual and collective leadership.

It is our view that education research should dramatically expand its focus to understand whether, how and why leadership at all levels affects outcomes in education. In fact, the presence of leadership might be the single most important element for ensuring that other educational interventions are implemented properly and sustained over time. Improving our understanding of the role of leadership presents a major opportunity to accelerate innovation and learning in countries around the world.

Wendy Kopp is the CEO and Co-Founder of Teach For All and Founder of Teach For America. Laura Lewis is the Senior Director for Data, Research, Evaluation, and Measurement at Teach for All.