Sept. 14, 2020
When schools closed due to COVID-19 this spring, many parents learned what education researchers already knew—that teachers are key to student success.
So how do we attract, develop, and retain more high-quality teachers, particularly in our highest-need schools, as interest in becoming and remaining a teacher is declining? As with many intransigent public issues, the answer is multi-faceted and complex. But there is an effort underway that has the potential to improve teacher efficacy and retention: a digital tool called “micro-credentials.”
Taking a Lesson from Tech
Micro-credentials (MCs) first began to take hold in the technology sector of the U.S. economy around 2011. As employers’ need for workers with digital coding skills expanded rapidly, many individuals became interested in becoming “coders.” But a lack of formal education, financial constraints, and rapidly changing content kept many from entering the profession.
Coding “boot camps” and other short-term training programs proliferated to help build the necessary skill sets, but candidates still needed a way to demonstrate skills to employers before landing a job. Micro-credentials were relatively well-suited for this task because individuals could earn them by demonstrating, via a performance assessment, the application of a specific, discrete skill or competency in a real-world or simulated setting. A variety of organizations—from those providing the boot camps, software companies that developed the coding language, and even would-be employers—lined up to offer micro-credentials. The credential earned was typically shared as a “digital badge” that incorporated verifiable data about the performance assessment. As a result, employers felt they could trust micro-credentials as a reliable indicator that the person possessing the badge was competent in the indicated micro skill.
Digital Promise saw the potential for applying micro-credentials in K–12 education, and joined with BloomBoard to introduce the first micro-credential platform for educators in 2014. Since then, the number of entities offering micro-credentials to engage teachers in professional learning and offer career growth has multiplied exponentially. Providers include regional and local education agencies, as well as nonprofit and for-profit organizations that often focus on a specific content area or aspect of teaching. Even traditional institutions of higher education are developing micro-credentialing as a new way to reach the teacher market for upskilling.
What’s more, some states and local education agencies are providing “stacks” of micro-credentials that cumulatively indicate teacher readiness to fill a particular workforce need (e.g., a dearth of computer science teachers). Others see micro-credentials as a strategy to bring more diversity into the teaching profession by making it more accessible and affordable. For example, a “stack” of micro-credentials could be a substitute for higher education credits or traditional licensure exams.
Why It Matters
Most importantly, high-quality educator micro-credentials, which verify a discrete skill demonstrated through the submission of evidence, offer a stark change from the compliance-focused culture and processes that have existed for years in the teaching profession.
The United States is pretty good at mandating and investing in professional learning for educators. Most public schools’ labor contracts outline a specified number of professional development hours per school year. In 2015, TNTP estimated that large urban school districts were spending an average of $18,000 per teacher annually on development efforts.
Where things break down is on the quality of learning opportunities. A significant portion of teachers’ professional development is done to fulfill state-mandated “credit hours,” time-based professional development units that teachers must earn in order to retain or advance the license that allows them to teach in public schools. Most of this professional development does not reflect the scientific evidence on how adults best learn (e.g., personalized, sustained areas of focus over time, with formal opportunities for guided practice, collaborative feedback, and individual reflection). In fact, “PD” often manifests itself as the exact opposite: all teachers in a school, regardless of their experience or subject area, attend lecture-based trainings on the same topics, with no opportunities to practice the concept(s) or follow up with peers or supervisors on how they incorporated them in the classroom. This ineffective approach leaves many teachers with the view that PD is something they must endure, rather than something that supports them and their students.
Furthermore, there are few opportunities for career advancement for teachers that don’t require leaving the classroom. Teachers looking to progress professionally often have to become a school or district administrator, or even leave education altogether. The rare opportunities for teachers to gain increased recognition, authority, and compensation while staying in the classroom are often tied to experience or degree attainment, instead of demonstrable, on-the-job skills. And recent attempts to observe and recognize teacher ability in the classroom have largely backfired. For example, despite policies aimed at improving teacher performance evaluations, principals remain reluctant to provide their teachers with constructive feedback even when they’re aware of areas for improvement. As a result, almost all teachers receive high ratings with little differentiation in areas for growth. This can be particularly demotivating for some of our most-skilled teachers, who deserve to be recognized and rewarded for their superlative efforts and outcomes.
Given this lack of support and opportunity, it’s not surprising that the educator workforce is sometimes described as a “leaky bucket,” with substantial turnover in many schools across the country, particularly in those serving our highest-need students. Alarmingly, a 2019 poll reported half of teachers seriously considering quitting the profession.
Because of their reliance on the demonstration of discrete skills through the submission of evidence, micro-credentials may be just what we need to work our way out of this quagmire.
The Potential of Micro-Credentials
In every aspect, micro-credentials could change the check-the-box culture of teacher professional learning by focusing less on the act of gaining information and more on the act of implementing that information to better serve students. Instead of requiring every teacher to pursue the same micro-credential, educators have a myriad of online options to choose from, ideally based on need or area of relevant interest. Instead of being based on hours in a chair, micro-credentials require demonstration of competency (typically in teachers’ own classroom), vetted against a rubric. Educators who fall short of meeting the competency receive feedback explaining what they need to improve, and can continue to hone their practice until submitted evidence shows skill mastery. Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative is one regional educational agency taking this approach.
What’s more, states and school districts can use micro-credentials to better define teacher roles and career pathways, and help retain teachers who would otherwise leave the field. For example, when Arkansas developed Lead Professional Educator and Master Professional Educator designations, they provided the option for teachers to achieve them, at least in part, by earning a specific set, or “stack,” of micro-credentials that align with the respective roles. For example, the “Master Professional Educator Foundations” stack of seven micro-credentials offered by Bloomboard includes one on “Engaging Families in the Learning Process” and another on “Using Modeling to Support Adult Learning.” The Lead Professional Educator designation is further delineated by role, with tailored micro-credential stacks for instructional coach, interventionist, mentor, multi-classroom lead and professional learning specialist.
As of early 2020, at least 14 states in addition to Arkansas (and many more districts) have begun to experiment with micro-credentials for educators to meet requirements for certification, professional development, license renewal, and advancement. Some of these efforts are still being piloted, while others are fully established in statute or regulation.
What Comes Next
Momentum is building for micro-credentials to help move educator professional development and advancement away from inefficient, compliance-focused, blanket approaches toward impactful, individualized, empowering systems. But along with optimism comes the need for caution. When decision-makers first included PD as part of expectations for educators, they thought it would improve job satisfaction and the quality of teaching. Outside of a few exemplars, the promise and potential of teacher PD is largely wasted due to inadequate content, processes, and oversight. Without thoughtful guidance, the same could happen for micro-credentials. Already there is vast variability in the depth and rigor of the associated resources, evidence requested, and rubrics used to assess that evidence—in part because of the lack of consensus among stakeholders on the proper requirements for (or even definition of) a micro-credential.
Micro-credentials are poised to change the way educators learn and progress professionally. But if the successes and failures of current pilots and programs aren’t used as opportunities to learn and improve, micro-credentials won’t fulfill the vast potential they hold for PreK–12 education. New America’s Education Policy program is conducting national research on the implementation of teacher micro-credentials to determine what is and isn’t working, and to help inform how micro-credentials continue to evolve and be embedded within educator policies and practices. Look for early takeaways this fall, with a more in-depth report to follow this winter.