Helping Pittsburgh Stay on the Cutting Edge of Education Innovation


May 8, 2016

A teacher helps a high school student work on a laptop

Photo by Monkey Business/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 8, 2016.

In recent years, the Pittsburgh region has been named by influential national and international publications as one of America's most livable, resilient, affordable, “foodie,” startup-friendly and smartest cities. It is time for Pittsburgh's leading role in learning innovation to receive similar attention.

Local organizations, educators and leaders are creating remarkable learning experiences for Pittsburgh's young people, and other cities around the country are striving to replicate their innovations. Even the White House has taken notice. This week's Remake Learning Days will celebrate this work and provide an opportunity for the community and visitors to explore it.

The Remake Learning Network of more than 250 local education and innovation organizations seeks to help all young people develop creativity, contextual thinking, collaborative problem-solving and other skills critical to college and career readiness. This involves mentorship and both in-school and out-of-school opportunities. Community organizations play a key role by offering resources such as space for activities and by bringing people together.

Among the network's key elements of success are local universities and research organizations, which support these initiatives by, for example, creating collaborative researcher-practitioner partnerships to help schools and other organizations figure out who their efforts are reaching and what's working. They also can help answer other important questions by monitoring and evaluating ongoing efforts.

There is growing evidence that these types of innovations can improve student learning when implemented thoughtfully by skilled educators. For instance, our own national research examined one type of technology-rich innovation — personalized learning — and the results are promising.

Students in schools that focused on tailoring instruction to each student's individual needs, skills and interests made greater gains in mathematics and reading achievement than similar students in comparable schools. These schools often leverage out-of-school learning opportunities like those being developed in Pittsburgh. Although it's not yet clear which specific strategies or tools are most effective at improving education through personalization, many of the teachers and students involved liked teaching and learning in this way, challenges notwithstanding.

As Pittsburgh moves forward experimenting with new models of learning and mobilizing its excellent educators, we'll learn more about successful strategies. It will be important not only to implement, but also to document these efforts and their effects on youth so the region can continue to serve as a leader and model for other communities.

What can local residents do to ensure that Pittsburgh continues to lead in education innovation? Families should take advantage of the many in-school and out-of-school opportunities offered throughout the region, many of which will be on display in the hundreds of events scheduled for Remake Learning Days, with details online and in local media.

More of the region's businesses should get involved, too. And to drive the exchange of ideas, educators should visit one another's institutions, to learn from each other and bring new ideas back to their colleagues.

Remake Learning Days is the perfect time to see where Pittsburgh stands and to increase engagement across the community. We encourage everyone to take part.

John Pane is Distinguished Chair in Education Innovation and a senior scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist and associate director of RAND Education, a faculty member at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and an adjunct faculty member in the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Sciences and Policy program.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.