Imagine if you woke up one morning and every news headline stated that the United States was ranked 17th in health care, 25th in economic mobility and 13th in military capability. There would no doubt be a national outcry and actions taken to address these issues; Congress would pass bipartisan (remember that nostalgic word?) legislation to fund development, and every cable news pundit would demand immediate action.

Yet, these are the U.S. education system rankings globally in science, math and language arts respectively, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, the global standard for assessing a country’s education system performance. The common denominator among almost every country ranked above the U.S. is the amount of time their schools commit to teacher professional development.

In Finland and Singapore, for example, teachers have opportunities to participate in some level of professional development weekly; they are part of ongoing cohorts that meet at least monthly to update curriculum and/or conduct peer reviews; they invest in job-embedded coaching and experiential learning opportunities for teachers. Entering my 25th year in the K-12 professional learning field, I am still told by many school systems, “We have three professional development days: one in late August, Columbus Day and maybe MLK day.” 

I am also advised at times that a school does not have the resources or the space to offer professional development to all teachers on the same day. Unless district and school leaders, boards of education and politicians embrace the fact that effective teacher professional development results in advanced student outcomes both academically and social-emotionally, we will not improve our education system.

A common challenge is time: How do we find enough of it to provide professional development when teachers are under so much pressure to meet standards and raise student achievement? One of the great takeaways from the pandemic was the need for teachers to embrace virtual learning. While the overnight shift to remote instruction was not ideal, many teachers finally experienced and recognized the “how and why” after years of reading articles and/or attending sessions on blended learning. They discovered that students learn online, and that virtual learning can also benefit their own professional development. At Eduscape, we delivered remote professional development to more than 100,000 teachers during the spring and fall of 2020 to help them shift to remote teaching. There was a lot of anxiety at the beginning, but teachers were resilient and realized the benefits and opportunities of virtual learning.

Blended Professional Development Empowers the Teacher Instead of putting the challenges of remote teaching and learning behind us, we must embrace the benefits and apply them to district professional development. District leaders no longer have to rely on the limited number of “in-person” days set aside for professional development. They can develop or search for blended professional development models whereby teachers can experience in-person workshops with pre- or post-learning taking place online – all at their own pace and comfort level.

Blended professional development also allows for districts to build active, online professional learning communities among their curriculum and district teams. These communities of practice have proved to be extremely beneficial for teachers as they take on new initiatives and work with their peers to advance instructional practices. We learn better when we learn together.

District leaders and boards of education are under a convergence of historical challenges: COVID recovery, social emotional learning, cybersecurity, teacher recruitment and retention, and the overall well-being of oneself and staff are just a few. We must embrace the opportunities that have resulted from the pandemic and recognize that investing in better models of professional development for our teachers is a mandate for driving student success.

Alex Urrea is the founder and CEO of Eduscape, a New Jersey-based professional learning organization that has delivered professional development to nearly 1 million educators. Entering its 15th year, the organization partners with several leading New Jersey educational associations, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Educational Computing Cooperative, New Jersey Association of School Librarians and New Jersey ArtsEDU. Eduscape helps support the NJSBA/NJASA Online University, a virtual learning space for teachers to participate in exemplary eLearning.