June 11, 2019
In the age of the evidence-focused Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and its new definition of educator professional learning—states and school districts must re-evaluate old approaches to developing the current teacher workforce’s skills and knowledge in service of their students.
Micro-credentials (MCs) have recently gained momentum as a high-potential approach to promote more meaningful teacher professional learning and more directly measure evidence of that learning. Below is an excerpt from our recent paper, Rethinking Relicensure: Promoting Professional Learning Through Teacher Licensure, that provides deeper insights about what teaching micro-credentials are, how they work, and considerations for states looking to allow MCs as one option for fulfilling teacher license renewal requirements (which are typically focused on professional development activities).
What are Micro-credentials?
Although educator awareness of micro-credentials is increasing, MCs are still much misunderstood. Despite some characterizations as “courses,” “online modules,” or “professional learning,” a micro-credential is not professional development in and of itself. Rather, similar to other credentials, like degrees or diplomas, a MC provides public recognition of knowledge and skills held. Specifically, a teaching micro-credential is a verification of a discrete skill or competency that a teacher has demonstrated through the submission of evidence. That said, the granularity of teaching skills that micro-credentials are currently being used to assess still varies widely, from small and specific (e.g., “using wait time effectively”), to big and broad (e.g., “analyzing student work”).
How Teaching Micro-credentials Work
A teacher earns a specific MC if the “issuer” (see below for definition) determines that the evidence s/he submitted demonstrating that skill meets the issuer’s definition of competence. While most issuers of MCs do provide suggested professional development resources to teachers working toward the micro-credential, when it comes to assessing competencies, many are agnostic about how teachers have attained them. As such, a teacher who is already highly skilled in a particular area could earn an MC without engaging in any new learning, while a teacher who is newly developing a skill may need to engage in substantial formal and informal learning experiences before earning the same MC.
One element missing from the above process is an attempt to provide some quality control in order to ensure that the earner of a particular MC does in fact hold that skill. This has led the area of micro-credentials to be called the “Wild West.”
As in other fields, any entity that chooses to can be an issuer of a micro-credential, and not all issuers may hold a consistently high bar for earners in demonstrating competency. Digital Promise is an organization that has stepped in to play a quality control role in the education field, and is currently the most prominent organization in the teaching micro-credential space. In addition to playing a role as both technical provider and issuer, Digital Promise also works as a de facto “authorizer” or “accreditor” of the MCs issuers want to offer on its platform. Digital Promise has developed a transparent framework to guide the development of each micro-credential issued on its platform, and it works with prospective issuers in an iterative process to ensure that these basic tenets are met before the issuer can make the MC available to teachers. Digital Promise also plays a vetting role for MCs offered on the NEA platform.
[Note: Since the publication of Rethinking Relicensure, Digital Promise and BloomBoard have separated their micro-credentials work, and are now each operating their own technical platforms to offer MCs. BloomBoard works with a small number of research-focused organizations with instructional design expertise (e.g., American Institutes for Research) to develop the MCs offered on its platform, and uses a rigorous, uniform internal process for certifying and calibrating reviewers of its MCs. That is, BloomBoard is similar to Digital Promise in providing quality control within its micro-credential offerings. Where BloomBoard differs from Digital Promise is that instead of having each individual issuer review whether the evidence submitted meets their respective criteria for earning a MC, BloomBoard trains independent reviewers (often National Board Certified Teachers) to determine whether the evidence submitted is sufficient to earn the MC, regardless of who the “issuer” of the MC is. More on BloomBoard’s approach to micro-credentials can be found here.]
Considerations for Licensure Renewal
As states consider incorporating MCs in their license renewal systems, they must keep relevance and rigor at the heart of their policies and practices to prevent micro-credentials from “becoming the next CEU.” States should ensure that the entities they allow to issue micro-credentials are assessing the skills MCs are intended to verify in a consistent, high-quality manner. States can create the capacity to do so themselves, or only accept micro-credentials that have already been vetted by an independent, unbiased authorizer, like Digital Promise.
Additionally, states should allow teachers to count micro-credentials toward licensure renewal only when MCs are clearly tied to areas of student need or teacher professional growth need—otherwise, teachers could attain MCs in areas they have already mastered, undermining the relicensure goal of continuing professional growth. As states move toward systems that require teachers to develop and fulfill personalized growth plans as part of the recertification process, they could also employ MCs to help assess whether teachers have mastered skills they were endeavoring to develop.
However, states should use caution in doing so. Because micro-credentials are more of a “black-and-white” indicator of demonstrated proficiency in a competency than a nuanced indicator of skill level (i.e., one cannot half-earn an MC), overreliance on MCs as part of recertification could actually work against the goal of promoting a culture of ongoing professional growth. That is, educators could point to the MC they earned for demonstrating a specific skill as evidence that they no longer need to focus on developing that skill. As one teacher wrote, “if professional development exists in a box, we’re likely to just check it off and move on.” States will need to think deeply about the types of content and “grain-size” of micro-credentials that would be appropriate to offer toward recertification in this context (i.e., just how “micro” should a “micro-credential” be?).
In addition, to ensure teachers are encouraged and well-supported to take on challenging new skills through micro-credentials, states should ensure the provision of high-quality learning resources and supports aligned to each micro-credential offered toward recertification. Fortunately, the online format of micro-credentials allows them to be easily “tagged” to specific skills within a state’s teaching standards and teacher performance evaluation system to help point teachers to the areas most important for them to continue to develop. Supporting resources can be similarly tagged to guide teachers toward appropriate content.
As more states and districts begin experimenting with micro-credentials, we will continue to follow these efforts and delve into what's promising, what's challenging, and what lessons we are learning along the way.