NC among the states trying ‘micro-credentials’ to improve teacher training

Program to provide new tools on the way to larger teaching goals


RALEIGH — With a number of studies casting doubt on the value of traditional teacher training courses, a handful of states are experimenting with “micro credentials” designed to give teachers specific skills they can use in the classroom. In N.C. the Department of Public Instruction is piloting the use of micro-credentialing and offering digital badges as a way for educators to demonstrate competency and increase use of new skills and ideas in their classrooms.

A Micro-credentialing and State Policy Workgroup was assembled recently in N.C. to explore the ideas behind micro-credentialing and see how it can applied across the state. DPI staff, district stakeholders and some local school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, are working on new ways for teachers to boost their skills through short courses, usually offered online.

The courses allow teachers to take baby steps toward the mandatory training they need to renew their licenses, while giving them new tools they can use immediately. In the research done so far, teachers report they love the little courses. But skeptics worry that the bite-sized pieces may not be of the same academic rigor and quality as old-fashioned professional development courses.

The old method of teacher recertification has come under withering criticism and derision from teachers and education experts in recent years. States spend about $18 billion annually on professional development, according to a 2014 report for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, and a typical public school teacher spends 68 hours a year on professional learning required by school districts. Yet only 29 percent of teachers studied were highly satisfied with current professional development offerings and many complained that current course “offerings are not relevant, not effective and, most important of all, not connected to their core work of helping students learn.”

Enter the micro-credential. The mini-courses were an outgrowth of the business world’s “digital badges,” which pioneered the kind of small-skills learning to teach ethics policies, technical skills or sexual harassment guidelines, for example.

The new teacher education courses can be taken whenever teachers have time, not on scheduled dates, and from wherever they want, including their living rooms. The courses generally take a few hours, compared with a semester-long course (about three hours a week for 12 to 15 weeks) for the traditional courses.

But Tracy Crow, director of communications for the professional development association Learning Forward, said her group of administrators, principals and instructional coaches is skeptical.

She said while the skills learned in these courses may be helpful, it’s too soon to know if they provide practical training and whether the teachers are actually using them effectively. “It’s pretty Wild West in terms of what people are actually doing,” she said.

Most, although not all, of the micro-courses require teachers to try out what they have learned in their classroom, while video recording the session to submit as part of their requirements for the course.

For example, a third-grade teacher looking for some alternative teaching methods to help accommodate special-needs students in her classroom might take a micro-course in how to adapt visual learning aids for those students while lecturing to the rest of the class. Or she might take a micro-credential course in how to deal with special-needs students who shout out incorrect answers at random. She then records a video of herself using those techniques in the classroom and submits it for scoring.

A handful of other states — including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Texas and Wyoming — are starting to give teachers the option of using micro-credentials for continuing education requirements, the report said.

“A lot of states are talking about micro-credentials,” DeMonte said, but more work needs to be done on whether the courses provide quality education and training.

The micro-credentials are generally offered by for-profit companies like BloomBoard and Digital Promise. They employ academics to design the courses and to evaluate teachers who take them, and to score the results, according to BloomBoard CEO Sanford Kenyon.

Kenyon said his company and others are trying to change the dynamic from an “hours-based” structure to a skills structure. In general, in order to renew a license, teachers need to take 45 to 150 hours of classes in professional development about every five years, depending on the state.

“It’s measured by the number of hours I sit in a chair and listen to someone talk about something, and that’s it,” he said. “There’s no linkage between all those hours I spend and changing practice in the classroom.”

The micro-credentials, by contrast, are small, specific skills. States’ policies vary on how many “hours” each micro-credential counts toward in fulfilling the professional development requirement.

“I think a key to success for states that are considering using ‘micro-creds’ is that they develop a clear rationale for why they are using micro-credentials and what they hope to achieve,” said Machel Mills, director of professional learning systems at the Tennessee Department of Education.