Learning science says people learn best when they apply new information to their own contexts. When learners can make mistakes, reflect on new strategies, get feedback, and try again they gain a deeper understanding of the topic. But these elements are rarely applied to professional development. School districts spend a lot of money on trainings for educators, but the returns on that investment are not always clear. Many teachers say that even when the professional development is interesting — not always a given — they often feel like it’s one more thing to do in an already jampacked academic schedule. While educators around the country are slowly adopting various approaches that allow them to better differentiate learning for students, the same is rarely true for the adult learners in the system.
In order to help teachers learn and and become proficient in relevant skills, a nascent movement of nonprofits, states, districts and educators are exploring what a competency-based professional learning system could look like using micro-credentials. Digital Promise, a nonprofit with a mission of “accelerating innovation in education,” has been a strong proponent of micro-credentials, describing them as competency-based, on-demand, personalized and shareable.
Micro-credentials have the benefit of being rooted in classroom practice. In this model, teachers can no longer attend a workshop and receive credit for merely being there. Instead, they must take their learning back into their classrooms and try it out, submitting evidence, receiving feedback from peers and refining their approach. They also have to reflect on what they learned through those experiences. Participating teachers then submit these artifacts, which are evaluated before the micro-credential is awarded. If the reviewers feel the educator did not submit strong enough evidence of learning, they can provide feedback and ask the educators to try again. *
“The ability to try it right away in my classroom and to get feedback from my colleagues and the person running the micro-credential was really important,” said Brian Adamczyk, a health and physical education teacher at Kettle Moraine High School in Wisconsin. He’s taken several micro-credentials, including one on idea generation, another on productive research, and a third on effective class discussion. The discussion course involved reading a book, participating in asynchronous online discussions and reflecting on what was going poorly and well in his own implementation of the strategies. Adamczyk appreciated learning from colleagues who teach various ages across the district, all with valuable ideas he could try.
In his course on effective class discussion, Adamczyk learned to focus on the depth of his question asking to provoke more thoughtful debate from students. He also tried out various brainstorming techniques to get student ideas out and circulating before diving in on a topic. He likes that he can choose to earn micro-credentials in areas of his practice where he wants to improve and that he can complete them with flexibility, contributing when he has time. Kettle Moraine uses the BloomBoard platform to house the course materials, artifacts, feedback, discussions, and ultimately the micro-credential itself in a digital portfolio.
Kettle Moraine, a small suburban Wisconsin district about 30 miles west of Milwaukee, has taken the lead on micro-credentials. For the past several years the district has been focused on personalizing learning for its students by introducing more choice into classrooms, using blended learning strategies and offering multi-age classrooms. In 2011, when the teachers unions in Wisconsin lost much of its bargaining power through the passage of Act 10, Kettle Moraine’s superintendent, Patricia Deklotz, watched as districts around the state responded by instituting performance-based evaluations. That worried her.
“I was extremely concerned that all the work I had been doing to build collaboration would be trashed as they competed,” Deklotz said at a summit on micro-credentials hosted by Digital Promise. “I did not want teachers competing. I think the only way we serve students is collaboratively.”
Deklotz decided that rather than focusing on competition in her district, she would use the new latitude to change the compensation structure for teachers so they could add to their base pay for completing micro-credentials of their choosing. Deklotz liked this approach because it would give her teachers the chance to personalize their own professional learning, and give them some of the choice and agency that she hoped they would turn around and apply in their classrooms. Deklotz acknowledges that initially there was pushback from the most senior teachers “until they realized that they could increase their compensation beyond what was the top of our salary scale.”
Adamczyk said the most in-depth micro-credentials took him about nine or 10 weeks to complete, but said “the time is worth it when you see the results in your class.” For him, being trusted to choose the courses that will most benefit his growth or a particular group of students is a big step toward treating teachers as professionals. And, knowing that earning a micro-credential will add to his base pay is a nice incentive to pursue these opportunities.
In Kettle Moraine teachers can earn $200, $400 or $600 toward their base pay, depending on the type of micro-credential. The district allows teachers to take courses through outside nonprofits like Digital Promise, district-created micro-credentials or individually proposed credentials. The micro-credential must be pre-approved in order to count toward compensation, so that district leadership can keep an eye on costs.
“It has created the most impact of any initiative I’ve ever had in education,” Superintendent Deklotz said. As soon as the district instituted the policy, educators were developing ideas for micro-credentials. A literacy coach proposed a micro-credential on literacy across disciplines, and immediately 42 people signed up to take it.
“They were working on a goal we knew we wanted to accomplish, but doing it in a way to recognize the expertise of our educators,” Deklotz said. Rather than bringing in an outside expert, the group worked together to read research, apply ideas in the classroom and discuss. Deklotz said it is the first time she has seen teachers take ownership over district goals that were previously top-down initiatives.
“There’s an efficacy you see in teachers that are involved in this work that I think is awakening that sleeping giant. I think part of the power is giving them a voice in diagnosing and meeting the needs of students,” she said.
Megan Sayas, a third-grade teacher at Cushing Elementary, has taken numerous micro-credentials, often with her grade-level team. She’s found this approach particularly helpful because then she and her colleagues are on the same page about goals in the classroom. The third-grade team is unusually collaborative, often sharing students and rotating them between teachers for different subjects. Sayas and her two colleagues took a micro-credential about fostering a growth mindset in the classroom through Digital Promise last year, and are now jointly working to build in activities and habits of mind at the beginning of each school year.
Some of Sayas’ colleagues have been skeptical that the micro-credential is just more work on top of the already hectic and overwhelming job of teaching. But Sayas says because the learning directly ties into her classroom goals, and she can see gains immediately, she doesn’t feel that way. “I don’t consider it extra work because you’re picking what you want to learn about and you’re getting to use it right away with the kids,” she said. She, like Adamczyk, noted that being compensated for the work is a nice gesture from the district, but that the freedom to personalize her own professional growth has been rewarding on its own.
Last year Sayas tried to focus on tying together science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts through design. She wasn’t completely sure how to do that, although she knew it was one of the goals for elementary science, so she took a micro-credential on how to incorporate design thinking into her class. Her students designed, tested, built and iterated on boat designs that would not only float, but also hold as many pennies as possible. She was already planning to teach an integrated project, but the micro-credential gave her some resources and research backing to begin that process with some support.
WHAT’S HAPPENING ELSEWHERE?
While Kettle Moraine has the most developed micro-credential program, other districts and states are exploring the possibilities as well. Every district operates within its own context and has its own restraints, but many educators are excited at a type of professional development that is competency-based, grounded in research, and is assessed for how it was implemented in the classroom.
San Lorenzo School District science coordinator Jim Clark is grappling with the thorny problem of helping middle and high school teachers adapt to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) using a micro-credentialing model. He gives teachers the option of attending a two-hour workshop on a specific skill and then asks them to use that skill in their classrooms. Clark observes and gives feedback. Teachers get one micro-credential for this cycle and Clark is working to have micro-credentials recognized for advancement in the district’s salary scale.
“It just seemed like a really good way to address one of my main concerns, which is that there is a widespread support network for all of our teachers, which means tapping into the expertise that our teachers have,” Clark said. The NGSS represents a substantial shift in how teachers develop science lessons, and teachers need practice engaging students with content through interesting real-world phenomena. Clark sees micro-credentials as a way to recognize teachers’ hard work to develop their teaching practice in key areas, and hopes those who have been through the process will become resources for other teachers in their buildings. Ultimately, he hopes the science department across the district will be a cooperative, teamlike environment that will make teachers want to stay in the district.
Tennessee is currently piloting micro-credentials as a pathway toward relicensure with 60 teachers. The state is in the early stages of its program, but is working with stakeholders across the state to address issues of quality, assessment and the experiences of teachers earning micro-credentials. Advocates of micro-credentials hope that if Tennessee’s pilot progresses smoothly, it could be the first state to formalize micro-credentials in this way.
Seminole County Public Schools is also looking at how micro-credentials could shake up existing models of professional development after surveying its educators and finding that 70 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with workshops where they show up to “sit and get.” Teachers want more follow-up, and help putting ideas into practice. While there is no district micro-credentialing program yet, 85 teachers in the district are currently working on one designed by the Florida Department of Education and Digital Promise.
Seminole County is also working to build a network of Central Florida districts that recognize micro-credentials before jumping in feet first, said Ryan Peetz, who manages blended learning and digital learning implementation for the district. “We shouldn’t be creating something that isn’t going to apply to the other districts around us,” Peetz said. That way, if a teacher moves to a new district, he or she can go knowing their hard work will be recognized elsewhere.
These are just a few of the initiatives happening around the country.
The micro-credential movement is still quite small, and many districts are still exploring how it might fit into existing pay, licensing and evaluation structures. Digital Promise has been trying to ensure that the micro-credentials that do exist are high quality by emphasizing that they should be research-based, evidence-based and assessment-based. Advocates hope that setting standards for high-quality micro-credentials early will provide a strong foundation as more companies and nonprofits begin offering them.
If the movement grows, keeping the offerings high quality will be essential to their success, but it’s also an expensive endeavor. So far, organizations like Center for Teaching Quality and Digital Promise have shouldered those costs using philanthropic dollars, but reviewing micro-credential submissions takes capacity and could be quite expensive. Kettle Moraine uses its own teachers to evaluate district-initiated micro-credentials and pays them for that work. Two reviewers look at the evidence a teacher submits, and if they don’t agree a third person breaks the tie. Superintendent Deklotz says being a reviewer is great professional learning in and of itself.
“Everyone who is sitting on that review would tell you they are a better teacher because of their understanding of the system. They will rave about what they have learned simply by reviewing,” Deklotz said. Other districts, like Seminole County, aren’t so sure about having teachers evaluate their own peers. They are considering peer reviews by teachers from other districts.
Moving forward, the question of high-level rigorous review will be an important one. Leaders in this movement don’t want micro-credentials to be confused with digital badges, essentially a gold star without a lot behind it, or a rubber stamp. Instead, they hope the ecosystem will evolve so that states and districts will be able to identify high-quality courses from the rest and the micro-credential itself will be a form of currency for teachers to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
*The article has been modified to reflect that while individual districts may require micro-credential evidence to be submitted within a specific time frame, the Digital Promise platform does not.