Reflections on a Journey to Elevate Instruction


By Tara Tucci, Pittsburgh Public Schools

What began as a set of bold goals and big ideas just a few years ago is becoming a way of life at Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS). Knowing that teachers have a profound effect on students in many lasting ways, the District embarked on an effort to invest in its educators and the structures that support them as a key strategy to ensure every PPS student experiences high-quality instruction. Bolstered by the Pittsburgh PPS logoPromise® and in partnership with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the District committed to empowering its teachers to foster a culture of student growth, resilience, college-readiness, and preparation for life beyond high school.

Through the dedicated work of teachers, staff, community leaders, and partners, PPS has innovated and established a number of strategies over the past several years to support excellence for both staff and students. Several major grants that supported the start-up of these efforts are about to sunset, giving the District an opportunity to reflect on how these programs have been woven into the District’s work in tangible ways. 

Today at PPS, not only do all teachers receive feedback through multiple lenses of performance, but school leaders, non-teaching professionals, and central office administrators also receive more detailed feedback than ever before through growth-focused evaluation processes. Through efforts such as Students and Teachers Achieving Results (STAR) and Teachers Matter, the District recognizes, celebrates, and rewards schools and teachers that help their students grow and achieve. Teachers with effective practice have unique opportunities to collaborate and support their peers through Career Ladder leadership positions. The District is also implementing multi-faceted efforts to elevate teacher and student voice, as well as leverage teacher leaders and restorative practices to support positive teaching and learning environments.

This transformation has taken years, and is still very much ongoing. Battelle for Kids (BFK) has had the pleasure of working alongside the District and supporting its progress since 2011. The transformative work has progressed in several phases: engagement and design, introduction and implementation of new processes, routinized operations and continuous improvement, and now, growing application and use of the information to support practice and accelerate results for students.  Each phase has required recommitment, prompting frequent use of the phrase, “The journey continues…,” as a way to continuously push and address the next step in the process.  

Here are a few reflections for school districts considering this work. 

Deliberate, collaborative implementation may be slower, but yields a stronger outcome.
The design of the District’s teacher growth and evaluation system was a collaborative effort that included over 400 teachers, school leaders, and District and union staff. Together, they built a system that slowly unfolded over many years, with teachers receiving performance feedback privately before it was seen by those with a role in supporting their professional growth and ultimately used in end-of-year ratings. Teachers are a central part of planning appreciation and recognition efforts as well. While this requires flexibility in scheduling meeting time that doesn’t compromise instructional time, creating opportunities for teacher voice to guide these efforts yields results that are more meaningful and genuine expressions of appreciation.

PPSTeacherSweat the small stuff when building a culture that recognizes and appreciates teachers and teaching.
Large-scale efforts to recognize and celebrate success cannot be overlooked. But time and time again, teachers share that the most meaningful appreciation to them are the smaller, more personal acts. Ranging from individual calls to new teachers throughout their first year to handling meeting logistics so teachers can come together and plan events for their colleagues; these seemingly small efforts make a big difference in culture. 

Balance providing accurate and reliable feedback with deepening use of the information for growth.
As the District’s growth and evaluation systems mature, a unique challenge emerges in balancing time and capacity spent on ensuring the continued validity of the system with a need to focus greater attention on utilizing the information to grow teacher practice and improve instruction for all students. Time is a precious resource for everyone working in a school district, but especially school-based educators. School leaders must both maintain their skill in accurately observing and rating teacher practice while also dedicating time and sharpening their ability to coach and support the learning of their staff based on what they see in classrooms. At the District level, often the same staff responsible for collecting performance information, such as student surveys, are also needed to help central and school-based staff translate the results into information that can inform professional learning. Clearly it’s the use of this information that will impact outcomes for students, and yet efforts must be made to ensure the integrity of the system.

Value stability, but be willing to modify and improve.
It’s human nature to continue tinkering long after we’ve built something. This can be a positive force and keep us on the cutting edge of new thinking and research. However, it can also yield a pendulum effect and prevent efforts to settle in and really take root. As time goes by, it is easy to forget how and why a tough decision was made. Now that the PPS system design is complete, the District continues to learn, collect data, and request feedback from educators. It relies on a collaborative group of teachers, school leaders, and staff to consider opportunities to adjust and improve the system as needed, while still balancing the value of stability.

Systems are foundational; practice and culture changes are transformational.
The District has invested in the development of robust data systems and growth and evaluation tools that will continue to benefit PPS for years to come. While these had to be established, the real impact for students comes as staff engage with these tools to inform and deepen ongoing efforts to improve teaching and learning. This is the hard part. At the central office level, it requires alignment and close cooperation between content experts, instructional leadership coaches, and those who support the technical aspects of the growth and evaluation process. To truly transform outcomes, the District knows that staff at all levels—in schools and in central office—must continue to collaborate and leverage the established tools for the benefit of students.

The District’s commitment to ensuring effective instruction for all students transcends any single grant, program, or person. The systems it built to support, empower, and recognize teachers have the potential to impact teaching and learning for years to come, and to reach its goals of increasing student achievement, eliminating racial disparities in achievement, creating a positive school and district culture, and fostering innovation.

Preparing every PPS student for life beyond the classroom has always been the goal for PPS—and the journey continues.
Learn more about Pittsburgh Public Schools' journey to advance the teaching profession to help students achieve excellence.