Developing and Retaining Strong Teacher Talent in North Carolina with Micro-credentials

digiLEARN's Beverly Perdue and Myra Best discuss a road map for the state
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July 15, 2021

New America’s recent report, Harnessing Micro-credentials for Teacher Growth: A National Review of Early Best Practices, informed the work of the North Carolina Partnership for Micro-credentials as it developed a road map for improving teacher development and advancement opportunities in the state. DigiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning with a goal of increasing personalized learning options for students and expanding instructional opportunities for teachers, led the Partnership’s work.

In this interview,* digiLEARN’s leaders—Beverly Perdue, former governor of North Carolina and founder and board chair of digiLEARN ,and Myra Best, executive director of digiLEARN—explain why they spearheaded the Partnership, share what the Partnership produced, and offer lessons from their efforts for states interested in improving retention and the overall quality of their teacher workforce.

For more context on this issue, see New America’s Educator Micro-credentials Collection Page.

New America: Why was digiLEARN interested in helping North Carolina pursue micro-credentials as an approach to promoting ongoing teacher development?

Bev Perdue: Since the mid-2000s, digiLEARN has been involved in promoting digital-based education in schools reflecting the diversity of North Carolina. Recently, digiLEARN identified and developed teacher leaders called Digital Scholars to incorporate innovative personalized learning approaches that they could model for other teachers visiting their classrooms.

During our Digital Scholars work, it became clear to us that we also needed to personalize opportunities for teachers to learn and grow. As we dug into how to help teachers personalize their own learning, there were some loggerheads. Right now, professional development requirements for teachers in NC are based around accruing continuing education units (CEUs). CEUs are based on the time teachers spend in a given development opportunity, not about whether a teacher actually grows their skills as a result. Additionally, besides the opportunity to grow professionally, our program had no way to provide recognition and compensation to reflect the increased competency and responsibilities resulting from our Digital Scholars program. The typical career pathway for teachers is to seek an advanced degree and ultimately end up in a school or administration role or another role that takes them out of the classroom. At the conclusion of the Digital Scholars training, some teachers who were exemplary left the classroom to work somewhere where they would be actively rewarded for their enhanced skills.

We wanted to find a way to reward strong teachers to remain in the classroom, so we began to think about how we could develop, recognize, and compensate teachers differently. We had the idea of bringing together stakeholders to discuss how to move from the existing compliance-oriented system to a visionary one based on demonstrated competency, and were intrigued by the potential we saw in micro-credentials to offer a better way forward. We worked with the State Board of Education to approve the concept of the North Carolina Partnership for Micro-credentials, and digiLEARN secured philanthropic funding to move the work forward.

New America: The Partnership was composed of various stakeholders who had to come to consensus about whether and how to incorporate micro-credentials for teacher professional learning in NC. Why did you take this approach?

Perdue: What we’ve learned in many years of work is that to be successful in innovating in education, you need to make sure the perspective of everyone who will be affected by the initiative is consulted and heard. For this initiative, it meant not just the teacher and school leader groups, but also higher education, the business community, professional development and technology providers, etc. But the end game is to ensure really great teachers, and everyone involved understood that as the ultimate goal of the Partnership.

Best: It doesn’t matter how great the idea is if stakeholders aren’t bought in. It’s the only way to create sustainable change.

New America: How and what did the Partnership ultimately decide about incorporating micro-credentials within NC's educator talent system? Was there anything that was contentious or that surprised you?

Perdue: We drew upon New America’s research to investigate who, where, and how micro-credentials are being utilized nationally, and what micro-credentialing efforts were most successful and why. We also contracted RTI International to conduct a feasibility study of North Carolina’s current systems and structures around educator development and advancement. RTI also conducted focus groups with educators at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels to understand their perspective about current teacher development approaches and how to improve upon them, with micro-credentials raised as one potential option for doing so.

From this research, we identified four essentials for micro-credentials, including that they be: (1) clearly defined, (2) high-quality, (3) have portable value within the state, and (4) result in increased compensation. The piece we saw as most essential was defining what a micro-credential is. That might sound easy, but everyone had their own conception of what it is, how it should be done, what the elements were, etc. We needed to have a shared understanding to move the conversation forward, especially on the aspect of quality.

Micro-credentials (MCs) must be designed in a way that both employers and employees view as valid and valuable, but trying to figure out how to do so was tricky.

Micro-credentials (MCs) must be designed in a way that both employers and employees view as valid and valuable, but trying to figure out how to do so was tricky. We determined that it was critical that any credentials be validated by the state so that educators can be assured that it will have value in any school district. And for that to happen, MC quality has to be consistent.

The findings have been interesting and provocative, and at the end of day, I think NC will have a new capacity to assure the public that there’s high-quality competency-based teacher learning happening in schools.

Best: When we started the Partnership, there were teachers in North Carolina already earning micro-credentials, but there wasn’t any consistency in the micro-credentials themselves or their value to teachers. Some local districts were having teachers create their own micro-credentials, some were using national providers (Bloomboard, NEA, Digital Promise, etc.). District hiring managers received teacher applications highlighting MCs or digital badges in various areas, but hiring managers had no way to know if they were meaningful.

And there was a distinct difference in stakeholders’ philosophies around teacher micro-credentials. Originally everyone agreed they needed to be teacher-led, but over time many recognized that MCs would not have a meaningful impact for the majority of teachers if there was no clear currency attached to earning them. Teachers do need to have some choice in their professional trajectory, but their growth pursuits still need to make sense within the broader educator human capital system.

People have been increasingly aware of the four essentials for MCs that Governor Perdue raised and wrestling with how to solve these issues, but our Partnership is the first statewide effort we’re aware of to try to address them head-on. The Partnership’s final recommendations came in the form of a strategic road map for how to deliberately implement micro-credentials statewide over time, initially focusing on one or two priority areas for the state, such as early literacy or computer science, to identify and respond to pressure points.

The framework would create a state-supported system of professional learning that incorporates micro-credentials, but still allows for local districts to continue to do other types of personalized learning that they find are impactful to teachers’ practice. We wanted it to be clear that this isn’t about determining whether a traditional vs. innovative approach is better, but about putting a new focus on the outcomes of professional learning, rather than the inputs. The point of considering including micro-credentials within educator talent systems is not to put current models out of business, but to ensure high-quality teachers in every classroom.

An area of contention was whether we should encourage MCs for all teachers. But our task force’s research found that beginning teachers are overwhelmed with fulfilling induction requirements, and it’s the more experienced teachers who are leaving because they don’t see opportunities for recognition and advancement. As a result, we recommended beginning with a focus on more experienced teachers, while acknowledging that further down the road, when more teachers have experience with MCs, less experienced teachers could be included.

One of the more surprising pieces of this work is that many seem to have forgotten that a competency-based approach to teacher development and advancement is not entirely new. National Board Certification for teachers (NBCT), which is recognized and rewarded by many states, was the forerunner. Although the NBCT process is more comprehensive and content-area driven than MCs, digiLEARN sees an opportunity to learn from the National Board’s efforts to inform the state’s approach to teacher MCs, and to potentially connect these two approaches together.

New America: Now that you have the road map to include micro-credentials to improve teacher development in NC, what comes next? Who do you need to involve to ensure the Partnership's plan moves forward, and what are any challenges you foresee to its progress?

Perdue: We are delighted that the North Carolina State Board of Education has approved the preliminary recommendations the Partnership put forth after its year working together. It’s now up to the State Superintendent and State Board of Education to determine how to implement the key components, but the Partnership will continue in an advisory role to provide guidance to policymakers and implementers and help iron out any kinks that may arise. The General Assembly and local teachers also need to be involved in these ongoing conversations.

Best: The biggest challenge we see is that many higher education entities currently award CEUs based on seat-time, so moving to a competency-based model for measuring professional learning, such as micro-credentials, would require a major shift. Another challenge is that some online universities are offering competency-based degrees that are being confused with MCs, so that’s a stakeholder education and communication issue we’ll have to address.

New America: What advice can you provide to other states looking to transform their educator human capital systems and that may be considering micro-credentials as a potential tool?

Perdue: Federal COVID funding provides states and districts with an opportunity to innovate with high-quality micro-credentials for teacher development and advancement, and gather data on their utility. I would advise states to seize this moment and step away from the comfortable models that already exist to put an emphasis on innovation and creativity in supporting teachers. We know that professional growth and compensation are two important elements of keeping teachers in the profession, and that keeping great teachers in the profession is necessary to ensure students have the learning opportunities they deserve. State leaders need to do this work even though it’s tedious and hard. Reach out to stakeholder teams and push them to think about what they would do in a perfect world, not the world we currently live in, even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation. Ultimately, stakeholders across a state need to understand and believe in these efforts for them to be successful.

State efforts shouldn’t be about the adoption of the micro-credentials themselves, but about enabling the kind of high-quality systems of professional learning that research shows teachers need to learn and grow.

Best: State efforts shouldn’t be about the adoption of the micro-credentials themselves, but about enabling the kind of high-quality systems of professional learning that research shows teachers need to learn and grow. Teachers need the time and space to collaborate, to receive expert feedback on practice, to have an opportunity to review and reflect on the impact of shifts in practice—and the evidence points to high-quality MCs as helping promote these shifts. States are the ones that need to lead these efforts, rather than districts, to ensure that MCs are integrated into the larger system. To do this, states should look at previous research and commission any necessary new research. digiLEARN’s board has just authorized us to develop partnerships with a handful of other states to do this work, and ideally help states figure out cross-state reciprocity for MCs too.

One thing that can’t be overlooked is that equity and opportunity for teachers and students must be at the center of these efforts. In many states, including NC, communities rely in part on their local tax base to fund schools, despite differing socioeconomic realities. States must ensure that teacher advancement opportunities are available for all so that districts aren’t competing with each other for the best teachers.

Ultimately, if we want teachers to be lifelong learners like we want students to be, states need to create an environment where teachers are treated as professionals and are supported in doing the best job they can in serving the children in their state.

*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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