To Improve Teacher Training, States Try ‘Micro Credentials’

By: - September 28, 2017 12:00 am

Teacher Jillian Martin helps her class with interactive math problems in a Washington, D.C., elementary school. Some states are experimenting with online “micro credentials” for teacher professional development, hoping the mini-courses will provide skills that are relevant in the classroom.

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated 10/2 to refer to Digital Promise as a nonprofit.

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.

The short courses, usually offered online, 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 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 semesterlong 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.

‘A Skills Structure’

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.

In a September report, the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan behavioral science and educational study organization funded by federal grants and private foundations, looked at a handful of states that have used some form of micro credentials in the past two years, and highlighted efforts in Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee, where multiyear pilot projects are underway. The group found that measurable results are “thin” so far. Most of the research is based on teacher feedback, which Jenny DeMonte, author of the report, said has been overwhelmingly positive.

A handful of other states — including Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, North Carolina, 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 nonprofits like 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.

Tennessee’s Trial

Machel Mills, director of professional learning systems at the Tennessee Department of Education, said her state decided to experiment with micro credentials to see whether teachers learned from them, whether they thought the learning was rigorous enough, and whether the courses were easy to take. They sought volunteers for the program, and included novice and veteran teachers among the 58 who signed up in 2016.

“The result was overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “Teachers appreciated having choice in their professional learning.”

Under Tennessee’s pilot program, teachers were able to choose three micro credential courses from a set of 14 recommended by the state. The state requires 30 professional development hours to advance from an initial license to a “professional” license and then 60 hours of training every few years to continue to hold that license.

Under the pilot program, each micro credential counted for five hours. The state paid the cost of the courses, she said.

Tennessee entered the experiment, she said, to offer personalized learning and to develop an innovative approach to training. The state is in year two of a three-year program trying to determine if the program’s goals were met and whether the new courses serve the state’s purpose better than the old methods.

“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,” she said. “There should be thoughtful and consistent messaging so teachers know what the expectations are.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.