Education Opinion

Pittsburgh District Aligns Learning With Student Goals

By Learning Forward, Linda Jacobson & Michelle Bowman King — August 17, 2017 4 min read
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The Redesign PD Community of Practice engages teams from 22 of the nation’s leading school districts and charter management organizations in identifying local professional learning challenges and creating scalable solutions. Learning Forward facilitates the community, where teams participate in continuous learning cycles to improve how they manage their professional learning systems.

In the midst of major transition, the Pittsburgh Public Schools is implementing changes that will improve professional learning for teachers and ensure that educators have the resources they need to improve student learning.

Linda Jacobson
Michelle Bowman King

While an evaluation system can be used to identify teachers’ strengths and areas for growth, a true professional learning system is much broader than that. Developing a system to build educators’ capacity, however, is what the Pittsburgh Public Schools is striving to put into place under new leadership and with support from the Redesign PD Community of Practice.

The district was involved in a variety of initiatives that required training for teachers, but these types of sessions often competed with real opportunities for teachers to engage in professional learning.

A series of key changes, however, are under way to make sure professional learning opportunities at the district and school levels are in line with an instructional framework and a defined and shared understanding of learning goals for students.

During the 2016-17 school year, the district hired new executive directors for English language arts and mathematics and introduced a framework for high-quality instruction with four tenets: rigor, student engagement, demonstration of understanding, and culturally relevant pedagogy. With the input of internal and external stakeholders, district leaders also completed and launched a strategic plan for the next five years that includes goals related to professional learning.

Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, the district plans to increase the number of professional learning half-days from two to eight per year and implement professional learning communities in all schools. Forty-three schools will have English language arts coaches, and 10 centrally based mathematics coaches will provide support across schools.

“With new leadership, a strategic plan, and the support from Learning Forward and the Redesign PD Community of Practice, we are confident that Pittsburgh Public Schools will transform its professional learning system to grow the practice of teachers and school leaders to improve student outcomes,” says Allyce Pinchback, director of professional development for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

These improvements will also address some of the findings related to professional learning that were noted in an audit of the district conducted last year by the Council for the Great City Schools. The audit team identified gaps in professional learning related to curriculum and instruction and made recommendations designed to ensure “that all professional development offerings are coherent, vetted, and aligned to the instructional priorities of the district.”

As the district continues to plan for next year, one goal will be to help district officials understand past successes and failures related to professional learning in the district so that everyone can move forward and avoid repeating mistakes. Other priorities include understanding the urgency of improving student outcomes and implementing initiatives programs and systems that are thoughtful, meaningful, and have an impact.

Being part of the Redesign PD Community of Practice, Pinchback says, is helping to move the district in the right direction. “The district has benefitted greatly from membership in the community and is thankful for the learning, resources, ideas, and connections that have come as a result,” she says. “We are excited to be in a place where we are able to begin truly implementing the work.”

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Pittsburgh Public Schools Vision and Goals


Teacher and school leader professional learning originating from the Office of School Performance and Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment/Professional Development, in collaboration with school-based educators, will be aligned to the Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate profile, a defined and shared understanding of what students need to know and be able to do (standards), and an instructional framework, which will enable growth in teaching practice and relevant, rigorous student learning experiences in all classrooms.


  1. The district will use an instructional framework based on the 8 Cultural Forces/6 Cultures of Thinking (Ron Ritchhart’s work), define clear content priorities based on standards and aligned to the district’s graduate profile, and establish discipline-specific instructional practices in the core content areas aligned to the district’s instructional framework.
  2. The district has a coherent and aligned professional learning system to grow instructional and leadership practice for all educators.
  3. The Office of School Performance and Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment/Professional Development will use a process and protocol for launching, discontinuing, continuing, or scaling initiatives that impact teaching and learning.
  4. The district will implement systemwide criteria and standards for professional learning that must be met before implementation.

Linda Jacobson (lrj417@yahoo.com) is an education writer and editor. Michelle Bowman King (michelle.bowman@learningforward.org) is Learning Forward’s associate director of communities.

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.