Leadership Development: The Missing Piece in the Global Effort to Improve Education


Last fall, all 193 Member States of the United Nations agreed to work towards achieving inclusive and equitable education for all by 2030 as part of the UN’s 2030 Development Agenda. This effort builds on significant global progress in primary education made over the past 15 years which helped to ensure 9 out of every 10 children in developing regions are in primary school, with girls now enrolled at almost the same rate as boys.

Yet today, we face formidable challenges in achieving the global community’s bold new sustainable development goal to achieve inclusive and equitable education for all. Around the world, 250 million children still lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, while gender parity is only rarely achieved beyond primary school.

Achieving our shared goal by 2030 requires innovative approaches that dramatically increase the pace of progress.

One approach that has yet to receive the attention or investment it deserves — but is critical to accelerate and sustain progress — is an intentional effort to develop a diverse set of leaders within developing countries who are committed to fighting for improved outcomes for children.

In the 40 countries where Teach For All’s network partners are at work, we have found that the communities showing the most promise benefit from a constellation of diverse leaders who drive interventions and innovations from a range of vantage points, both within and outside education systems.

In the United States, where Teach For America has been at work for more than 25 years, we have already seen the transformative effects of intentional efforts to develop leadership on improving educational outcomes.

One of the most striking stories of transformation is taking place in New Orleans, Louisiana — and leadership is at the center of that story.

New Orleans was one of the first places where Teach For America began placing corps members. Just 12 years ago, 62 percent of New Orleans’ schools were failing. Less than a third of students performed at grade level, only half graduated from high school, and only one in three continued on to college.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, requiring the school system to be rebuilt from the ground up. Alongside many others in the community, hundreds of New Orleans-area Teach For America corps members and alumni returned to the city in the wake of the storm’s devastation, determined to continue their work re-imagining what was possible for the children of New Orleans.

Ten years later, New Orleans was the fastest-improving education system in the country. Today, the percentage of failing schools has dropped from 62 percent to 7 percent, and twice as many students are performing at grade level. Graduation rates have jumped by more than 20 percentage points, with three out of four students now graduating from high school on time, while the percentage of students continuing on to college has hit 63 percent.

The progress New Orleans has made in just ten years is nothing short of extraordinary. Many people deserve credit — community leaders, veteran educators, parents, students themselves. Alongside them, Teach For America corps members and alumni — almost 1,200 of them — comprise a full 20 percent of the New Orleans teaching force and a third of school and school system leadership, while dozens of alumni lead social enterprises that provide a range of support services to schools and children. There is no question the return of hundreds of committed individuals, who came to know New Orleans’ schools through their time as Teach For America corps members, has been integral to the city’s remarkable pace of change.

New Orleans’ story proves that progress can happen faster than anyone might believe possible—if there are leaders, who are from or live and work in partnership with local communities, who are committed to creating and sustaining it.

As with Teach For America, Teach For All’s unifying theory of change is that an individual who successfully teaches in a high-need community will be inspired to a lifetime of leadership and advocacy on behalf of children. Through teaching, they come to understand the complex challenges that face their students and their schools, see first-hand the incredible potential of all children to succeed when met with high expectations and provided with necessary support—and develop a sense of urgency and conviction for fighting the range of inequities they see holding their students back.

Even though many Teach For All partner organizations are young, we are already seeing that an intentional approach to cultivating leadership has enormous potential to improve learning outcomes in developing countries.

In India, where Teach For India has been active for nine years, 71 percent of alumni work directly with children or educators, and another 28 percent are organizational leaders—like Chaitra Murlidhar, who founded a teacher professional development program that aspires to institutionalize development models that improve student outcomes across India’s school systems.

In Peru, where EnseñaPeru has been active for seven years, 90 percent of its alumni are still working in education, with 53 alumi serving in the Ministry of Education— women such as Angela Bravo, who led a successful national effort to reimagine life skills and vocational courses required by every high school in the country.

And in the Philippines, where Teach for the Philippines has been active for only three years, several alumni are already working in the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education—like Chess Carlos, who advises the Commissioner on teacher development initiatives.

The importance of leadership for creating change is corroborated by several studies, although further research in this area should be undertaken. A ground-breaking 2010 McKinsey & Company study that analyzed 20 diverse education systems around the world found that “leadership is essential not only in sparking reform but in sustaining it…improving systems actively cultivate the next generation of system leaders, ensuring a smooth transition of leadership and the longer-term continuity in reform goals.” And Professor Michael Fullan, who was instrumental in devising the approach that helped Ontario’s school system make gains faster than almost anyone thought possible, has found that “system transformation of the type educators now aspire to cannot be accomplished without first ensuring solid leadership at all levels.”

Despite the critical role of leadership in creating and sustaining progress, intentional efforts to develop leadership are not yet high on the agenda of the international development community. If we are to meet our goal to achieve inclusive and equitable education for all by 2030, that must change.

At every level—in schools, education systems, advocacy, government—we should be focused on identifying, developing, and supporting the leaders who will accelerate our progress towards achieving inclusive and equitable education by 2030.

We would be well-served to support global and regional civil society organizations, local social enterprises, and local governments that are testing innovative new ideas for developing leadership or working to scale up existing programs to foster leadership development.

As we know all too well, no silver bullets are waiting for us when it comes to our shared work towards inclusive and equitable quality education for all. That means there is all the more reason to make an unprecedented investment in growing the force of local leaders who will pioneer the range of solutions needed to tackle this issue in its full complexity. A strong commitment to pursuing innovative ways to support leadership development is one of the most high-impact investments we, as an international community, could make.

If we are to meet our goal to achieve inclusive and equitable education for all by 2030, leadership development must not just be included on our agenda—it must be at very top of that agenda.

This essay was submitted to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and can also be found here.