By Barnett Berry, Kathleen M. Airhart, and P. Ann Byrd
We teachers are passionate about our professional learning. But rarely are we able to use artifacts from our classroom and student learning evidence to share with our colleagues what we’re accomplishing. This will be the greatest benefit of microcredentials.
— Marc Walls, high school science teacher
I have learned so much from other teachers, and microcredentials can help administrators see the power of how we can lead.
— Leticia Skae, high school English language arts teacher
Walls and Skae are highly accomplished teachers who have led in a variety of formal and informal ways, such as designing a program to provide new teacher support and coaching peers to teach college- and career-ready standards. But a great deal of their learning and leadership is neither recognized nor rewarded.
Both teach in Tennessee — a state that has invested in a wide array of teaching reforms, including training for standards-based instruction, as well as implementing more rigorous teacher evaluations. The state has been rightfully recognized for making some of the greatest gains of late in math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But Tennessee students’ reading scores on NAEP have stagnated, and substantial achievement gaps remain. Although 90% of the state’s teachers report they have “changed” their teaching, fewer than 40% say they have “adequate time to collaborate or adequate access to instructional resources and expertise” (Tennessee Department of Education, 2015, p. 15).
Personalized learning — for all
Policy leaders in Tennessee have called for a new chapter in school reform — expanding access to personalized learning for all K-12 students and making sure they’re ready for the demands of the global economy upon high school graduation. To be sure, college- and career-ready now means that it’s no longer sufficient for students to just memorize facts, take standardized tests, and write term papers. They must work toward the mastery of specific competencies through personalized assignments, often including project-based learning and internships.
This has important ramifications for teachers’ learning. As Walls, the science teacher, pointed out, “If personalization of learning is important for kids, then it is important for those who teach them.” But making this happen will require significant shifts. The hard truth about professional development in most U.S. schools has been well-documented: Few teachers are satisfied with their in-service training opportunities, and few school districts organize professional development according to best practices (Berry, 2015). Scholars point to specific components of effective professional development — that it should be job-embedded, inquiry-driven, and collaborative (Darling-Hammond, 2012). But few teachers in the United States experience professional development of this kind. Granted, a recent nationwide study (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014) revealed that school district leaders want to spend more time on “personalized formats” (like coaching and professional learning communities), but teachers are dissatisfied with how these methods are implemented. The study’s authors aptly describe these findings as a serious “problem of execution.” Microcredentials offer a new approach.
So what are microcredentials?
You’ve probably heard of digital badges. Organizations and companies have been using badges for more than a decade to represent accomplishment in the workplace or in recreational pursuits like gaming. Students are earning badges, too, whether through their districts (like Aurora Public Schools in Colorado) or nonprofit organizations like the Connected Learning Alliance (http://clalliance.org).
Inspired by the badging movement, microcredentials offer teachers opportunities to document their formal and informal learning . . . in bite-size pieces. They use work samples, videos, and other artifacts to make public what they have mastered and accomplished with their students and colleagues. Based on this evidence, which is assessed against established rubrics, teachers can then be recognized for what they’ve achieved. As Skae noted above, microcredentials “show how we can lead our own learning.”
For example, an educator completing a microcredential on Assessing How Time is Currently Used (issued by the Center for Teaching Quality as part of its Teacher-Powered Schools stack) would submit brief responses to overview questions analyzing data gathered about instructional time, a completed time-tracker document, and an essay (or seven- to 10-minute audio/video clip) addressing specific reflection questions.
Four characteristics distinguish the microcredentialing approach from traditional professional development systems:
- Competency-based. Microcredentials focus on evidence of teachers’ actual skills and abilities, not on the amount of seat time they’ve logged in their learning.
- Personalized. Teachers select microcredentials to pursue on the basis of their own needs, their students’ challenges and strengths, school goals, district priorities, or instructional shifts. They identify specific activities that will support them in developing each competency.
- On demand. Microcredentials are responsive to teachers’ schedules. Educators can opt to explore new competencies or receive recognition for existing ones any time of the day, using an online system to identify competencies and submit evidence.
- Shareable. Educators can share their microcredentials across social media platforms, through email, and on blogs and résumés. As a result, microcredentials are portable currency for professional learning that educators can take with them wherever they go
Building the system
Over the past two years, Digital Promise, a nonprofit seeking to accelerate innovation in education, has been building an ecosystem for advancing the design, development, and implementation of microcredentials for educators. Digital Promise has partnered with BloomBoard, an online professional development platform, to facilitate the process of an educator selecting a microcredential and submitting evidence to earn it.
As of late summer 2016, more than 30 content partners have developed more than 200 microcredentials — organized in “stacks” — to address a variety of educator skills and competencies. Microcredentials home in on a wide variety of competencies, from Teaching Practices for Deeper Learning (issued by Digital Promise) to more traditional pedagogical skills, such as Data Literacy and Wait Time (issued by the Relay Graduate School of Education). Teacher leadership is a focal area for some other microcredentials, such as stacks developed by the Center for Collaborative Education on Performance Assessment Literacy or by the Center for Teaching Quality on Teacher-Powered Schools and Leading Virtual Communities of Practice.
Here’s how it works
Each microcredential in the Digital Promise ecosystem includes six components: competency, key method, method components, research and resources, submission criteria, and scoring rubric.
To start, teachers identify the skill they wish or need to develop, submit proof of their competence, and earn digital badges verifying their expertise. Required evidence might include a portfolio, a video, student work, classroom observations, teacher and student reflections, or other documentation of their learning. Trained assessors — individuals that the issuing organization has qualified to review the evidence — examine the teacher’s submission against a rubric. Then the issuing organization determines whether the teacher should be awarded the microcredential.
Depending on a teacher’s skills and experiences, some microcredentials may take no more than an hour or so to submit, whereas others may take weeks. School systems can tap the resulting data to improve their professional learning investments. Microcredentials can yield valuable information about who knows what, identifying teachers who are well-positioned to lead their colleagues’ learning or spearhead specific reforms.
Some school districts, like Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, are already experimenting with microcredentials for educators — and finding success. Last year, more than half of Kettle Moraine’s 288 teachers earned at least one microcredential. One of them is Katie Hoff, an 8th-grade social studies teacher who chose microcredentials that fit seamlessly into her curriculum, like Digital Promise’s Managing Project Cycles and Persuasive Presenting (Barnes, 2016). Earning the microcredentials offered not only a new path for Katie’s relicensure but also a way for her district to reward her (with a salary bonus) for developing the knowledge and skills needed to engage students in deeper learning. Kettle Moraine superintendent Pat Deklotz, Wisconsin’s 2016 Superintendent of the Year, reports that microcredentialing allows her to enact a new vision for teachers’ learning, one that “is not a fixed script but an ever-changing dynamic” (personal communication, Oct. 19, 2015).
More districts and states are now investing in teacher leaders to help drive next-generation teaching and learning, as well as the instructional shifts needed for students to meet higher academic standards. For example, Tennessee, where Walls and Skae teach, has made significant investments in professional development — and is now looking to microcredentials as a way for teachers to lead their own learning and provide evidence of its effect (Tennessee Department of Education, 2015). Here’s how that story is unfolding.
Over the past several years, Tennessee has ramped up its teacher leadership efforts, with both its department of education as well as local and national nonprofits establishing fellowships for classroom experts to support the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and serve as instructional coaches for colleagues. Teachers are receiving more high-quality feedback than ever before through the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM), the state’s teaching evaluation rubric.
But teachers report that the feedback from peers and instructional coaches is not always actionable. Even in some of the state’s most innovative districts, teachers’ assessment of their professional development mirrors those of their colleagues across the United States. In particular, they lament insufficient ownership of their learning and too few opportunities to engage with one another in cycles of improvement (see Figure 1).
Recently, Tennessee Department of Education leaders have recognized that the state’s teacher relicensure requirements are out of sync with its commitment to ensure that teaching evaluation focuses primarily on continuous improvement and sharing pedagogical practices. Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen summarized state leaders’ goals:
To improve student learning, teachers must continuously increase the knowledge and skills they have to teach more rigorous content and engage students in learning. We have made this goal the central focus of teacher evaluation, and now we must align professional learning to meet this goal. To date, most state approaches to granting professional development credit have not evolved to meet individualized educator needs matched to the results of teacher evaluation (personal communication, Aug. 6, 2016).
Tennessee is tackling these issues head-on. In partnership with Learning Forward, the Tennessee Department of Education is working with several school districts (including Knox, Loudon, and Shelby counties) that are “identifying their local professional learning challenges and then creating scalable solutions” (Learning Forward, 2016). A multidisciplinary team of educators from the department is working with districts as well as with vanguard teachers to launch a microcredential pilot. Figure 2 shows the timeline for implementation.
In 2016-17, the pilot will pair 30 highly effective teachers with 30 novices in their respective districts. Throughout the year, the teachers will submit evidence on several Digital Promise microcredentials aligned with the TEAM rubric, focusing on specific areas (such as thinking, questioning, and problem solving) that have previously proven daunting for teachers in the state, as well as for administrators, who have struggled to give constructive feedback in these areas.
Supported by the Tennessee Department of Education and the Center for Teaching Quality, pilot participants will collaborate in a virtual community, sharing resources and reactions to the microcredentialing process. The department will look to these participants as a design team that can inform the content, process, and support structures needed to implement microcredentials with all beginning teachers.
In 2017-18, leaders from the Tennessee Department of Education plan to begin linking microcredentialing to the state’s licensure advancement system. State officials believe that 25% of novice teachers will opt into microcredentialing to complement other more traditional options as their route to obtain the professional development points required for licensure advancement. In addition, the department expects to launch an empirical examination of the microcredentials. The study will draw on a range of evidence (for example, TEAM results, surveys, and so on) from teachers who have earned microcredentials for licensure advancement and compare their experiences with those of their peers who continue to use more traditional models of professional development.
Tennessee Department of Education leaders anticipate that in subsequent years, the microcredentialing movement will expand to support much-needed reforms within the state, including the creation of innovative teacher leadership pathways, the identification of expert evaluators and coaches, and the cultivation of leaders for virtual communities of practice on a range of instructional topics. It’s likely that expert teachers and administrators in Tennessee will design some microcredentials to complement those offered by Digital Promise’s partners, addressing competencies relevant to districts’ pressing needs and teachers’ interests. Over time, the department intends to act on its research findings to support all of the state’s 67,000 teachers to experience personalized professional learning.
Why we’re so optimistic
Microcredentialing is in its nascent stages, and there still are far more questions than answers. Key challenges include figuring out funding and sustainability, communicating effectively with administrators and teachers, and organizing people and resources to best support local districts in this effort. These are big issues, but we’re optimistic about the prospects for microcredentials.
Microcredentialing is well-positioned as a solution for U.S. schools’ longtime professional development woes for five reasons. First, the microcredentialing approach is grounded in empirical evidence about effective teacher collaboration. Researchers have assembled mounting evidence about how and why teacher collaboration influences student learning (Ronfeldt et al., 2015). Other scholars have demonstrated that teachers are most likely influenced to make instructional shifts by colleagues from similar contexts and whom they trust (Hattie, 2015). Microcredentials can create ways for teachers to lead their own learning — built from research evidence and tailored to balance the learning needs of individual practitioners, teacher teams, schools, and districts.
Second, we think the approach will appeal to practitioners who have long been disillusioned with the professional development offered by their school systems. A recent national survey by Digital Promise (Grunwald Associates & Digital Promise, 2015) revealed that although teachers are dissatisfied with their formal professional development opportunities, nearly three in four are pursuing informal learning that satisfies their quest to improve. The survey also found that after teachers are introduced to microcredentials, about 31% report they are “extremely” or “very likely” to try them when they become available, and another 34% are “somewhat interested.” Teachers reported that they are most eager to find professional development that is easily accessible, personalized, and grounded in research.
Third, microcredentials enable teachers to get credit for what they’re already learning informally in online networks. Growing numbers of teachers, supported by nonprofits like the Center for Teaching Quality, are engaged in professional learning communities of their choosing that cut across schools, districts, and states, de-siloing classroom practitioners from one another. One in five teachers report they participate in online networks (Grunwald Associates & Digital Promise, 2015). According to a report by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2014), nearly 6 in 10 teachers are now using technology to work with teaching colleagues they “would not otherwise know.” As Walls told us, “I’ve grown more in the last year or so. It’s not in-services or PLCs. It’s Twitter. I’ve been able to pick the brains of so many teachers and administrators as well.” Microcredentials harness new technologies and can create a system of professional learning currency for teachers that is portable and shareable. They can provide administrators with invaluable data for making the most of what teachers learn through online networks.
Fourth, microcredentials, although revolutionary in concept, can fit readily into existing systems. In many states, professional learning policies already integrate seat-time and competency-based learning. Over the past year, seven states have begun to allow microcredentials to replace continuing education units needed for re-licensure. As Phil Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, told us:
I don’t know of a state that has a high-quality teacher recertification system. Some do not even do much to approve vendors. Most state education agencies want to move away from counting hours for recertification. They know what they have does not work. They just do not have the impetus to do so — yet (personal communication, Nov. 18, 2015).
Finally, the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents district and state leaders with new opportunities to rethink and fund differently systems for teachers’ professional learning and growth. ESSA defines professional development as “sustained (not stand-alone, one-day, or short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” And the new federal law supports states in specifying how their use of “Title dollars” can improve teaching effectiveness through “personalized support and feedback for improvement.” With ESSA Title II professional development funds as well as an overhauled Teacher and School Leader Innovation Program, districts can try more creative performance pay and other teacher quality improvement measures. In doing so, states can make the most of the emerging ecosystem of microcredentials to recognize and reward classroom practitioners for leading their own learning and documenting their accomplishments.
A better way
The imperative for change is clear. U.S. schools invest about $18 billion in teacher professional development annually, and teachers, on average, engage in about 68 hours of formal training annually directed in large part by their school district (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014). Yet teachers and administrators continue to testify that the current workshop, seat-time approach to professional development has not been working. And researchers concur.
System leaders can leverage microcredentials to support the continual growth of all teachers, whether they are novices finding their way or accomplished teachers seeking to expand their influence without leaving the classroom. The evidence-based system also presents new opportunities for administrators to assess the effect of specific professional development expenditures on teaching and learning.
There are other benefits, too. System leaders will have new ways to identify practitioners with particular kinds of expertise — and to calculate where gaps may need to be filled. And teachers will have a powerful tool to communicate with policy makers and the public about what deeper learning looks like for students and themselves. Education advocates, policy makers, and those who prepare teachers will find it an easier lift to pinpoint the practitioners, schools, and systems that model what we need the next generation of teachers to do and be.
Of course, transforming professional development in the United States will be no small feat. But personalized, competency-based student learning can only take hold if we change how we support teachers to learn and lead. The shift has already begun, as we can see in the rapid growth of online networks as well as the passage of ESSA. Microcredentials can help system leaders move teaching and learning forward in powerful ways, developing innovative approaches to document, strengthen, and maximize the expertise of teachers like Walls, Skae, and countless others across Tennessee and the nation.
Barnes, A. (2016, May 9). Increasing potential with microcredentials: An interview with teacher Katie Hoff. BloomBoard. http://blog.bloomboard.com/increasing-potential-with-micro-credentials
Berry, B. (2015). The dynamic duo of professional learning: Technology and collaboration. Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (4), 51-55.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers know best: Teachers’ views on professional development. http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
Darling-Hammond, L. (2012). Creating a comprehensive system for evaluating and supporting effective teaching. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/creating-comprehensive-system-evaluating-and-supporting-effective-teaching.pdf
Grunwald Associates & Digital Promise. (2015). Making professional learning count: Recognizing educators’ skills with microcredentials. http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/making_professional_learning_count.pdf
Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. London: Pearson. www.pearson.com/content/dam/corporate/global/pearson-dot-com/files/hattie/150526_ExpertiseWEB_V1.pdf
Learning Forward. (2016, May 12). Learning Forward launches community of practice to support 20 leading school systems. https://learningforward.org/blog-landing/press-releases/2016/05/12/learning-forward-launches-community-of-practice-to-support-20-leading-school-systems#.V55WXmX10y4
Ronfeldt, M., Farmer, S.O., McQueen, K., & Grissom, J. (2015). Teacher collaboration in instructional teams and student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 52 (3), 475-514.
Scholastic & Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014). Primary sources: Update: Teachers’ views on Common Core state standards. www.scholastic.com/primarysources/PrimarySources-2014update.pdf
Tennessee Department of Education. (2015). Tennessee succeeds. Where are we going? How will we get there? www.tn.gov/assets/entities/education/attachments/strategic_plan.pdf
BARNETT BERRY (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chief executive officer, and partner at the Center for Teaching Quality, Carrboro, N.C. KATHLEEN M. AIRHART (email@example.com) is chief operating officer and deputy commissioner of education for the state of Tennessee. P. ANN BYRD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief operating officer and partner at the Center for Teaching Quality.
Originally published in November 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 34-40. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.