Taking a Lesson from the Tech Industry: Develop and Retain Strong Teachers with Microcredentialing

What does becoming a skilled coder and becoming a skilled teacher have in common? The need for quality tools for professional development and demonstration of skills that are tied to real rewards in the workplace: lessons that have application for all those in public interest fields.

By Melissa Tooley and Joseph Hood

Many parents knew—and others learned during school closures due to COVID-19—that educators are key to student success. 

Research corroborates the fact that talented educators can help students surpass expectations. Teachers can also help close stubborn gaps in achievement that exist between students of color and students from low-income backgrounds and their peers. However, our public K-12 education systems are not always effective at leveraging an educator’s full potential. In order to do that, we must invest in and improve the quality of our teaching workforce over time through quality professional learning and career advancement opportunities that draw upon evidence-based best practices.

So how do we do that? How do we attract, develop, and retain more high-quality teachers in our schools, particularly 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 change the underlying culture of bureaucratic compliance for both professional learning and career advancement, and ultimately improve teacher efficacy and retention: a digital tool called “microcredentials.” 

Techies Lead the Way

Microcredentials (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 several factors stood in their way. Lack of formal education, financial constraints, and rapidly changing content that required constant learning to keep up with the ever-changing ecosystem 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. Microcredentials 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. Coding microcredentials were (and are) offered by a variety of entities including organizations providing the boot camps, software companies that developed the coding language, or even a would-be employer. 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 microcredentials as a reliable indicator that the person possessing the badge was competent in the “micro” skill indicated on their credential. 

The education field took notice, adopting the idea in 2014 when Digital Promise and Bloomboard jointly introduced the first microcredential platform for educators. Microcredentials for teachers, according to the National Education Association, are “a digital form of certification indicating demonstrated competency/mastery in a specific skill or set of skills.” Since then, the number of developers and issuers of teacher microcredentials has been growing exponentially. Providers include individual school districts who offer microcredentials and digital badges to better engage teachers in professional learning and growth, as well as non-profit and for-profit organizations focused on further developing a specific content area or aspect of teaching. Even traditional institutions of higher education are jumping into microcredentialing as a new way to reach the teacher market for upskilling. 

Beyond professional learning, states who see a specific need among their teaching workforce (e.g., a dearth of computer science teachers) are providing clear “stacks” of microcredentials that together would indicate teacher readiness for the role. Additionally, because a “stack” of micro-credentials could potentially be substituted for higher education credits, or for traditional licensure exams, some see microcredentials as a strategy to bring more diversity into the teaching profession, by making it more accessible and affordable. 

At the Heart of the Problem

To earn microcredentials, educators identify competencies they want to master and complete the requirements to earn them. They are a 180-degree change from what has existed for years in the teaching profession. 

While the United States is pretty good at mandating and investing in professional learning — nearly every educator in the country is required to participate in ongoing professional development — what is available today often doesn’t serve the needs of teachers or their students. 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 their license that allows them to teach in public schools. A 2011 estimate of school districts’ annual professional development spending per teacher was $14,750, and teachers often make additional investments out of their own pocket.

Where things break down is on the quality of learning opportunities. Most teachers engage in professional development (PD)  which does not reflect the scientific evidence related to 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: a one-size-fits-all approach where every teacher — regardless of their experience or subject area — attends the same lecture-based training without opportunities to practice. The training also lacks follow-up on incorporation of the concepts in the classroom. Not surprisingly, this approach has been ineffective, and educators often view PD as something they must endure, rather than something that supports them and their students. 

Meanwhile, there are few opportunities for career advancement for teachers that don’t require leaving the teaching profession (either becoming a school or district administrator, or leaving education altogether). The opportunities for increased recognition, authority, and compensation that do exist are often tied to experience or degree attainment, rather than the ability to demonstrate application of knowledge and skills on the job. The recent push to standardize teacher performance evaluations did little to change this, in part because principals are reluctant to provide their teachers with constructive feedback even when they’re aware of areas for improvement. The result: almost all teachers end up being rated highly overall, with little distinction between them. This can be particularly demotivating for some of our most-effective and highest-potential teachers, who love their students but want to be recognized and rewarded for their superlative efforts and outcomes.

Given this lack of support and of opportunity, it’s not surprising that the educator workforce is sometimes described as a “leaky bucket,” with high teacher turnover and attrition in schools across the country, particularly those serving our highest-need students. In fact, a 2019 poll reported that half of teachers surveyed say they are seriously considering quitting the profession. Microcredentials may be just what we need to work our way out of this quagmire. 

Shooting to the Head of the Class

Because of their reliance on demonstration of discrete skills through the submission of evidence, microcredentials are poised to change the way educators learn and evolve. Whether a given teacher microcredential provides direct teaching or “training” resources varies greatly by provider — some do—while with others it’s up to the teacher to determine how to gain the competency in question. But unlike traditional PD, the process needed to earn a high-quality microcredential reflects the evidence on how adults best learn. 

Instead of requiring every teacher to attend the same training, microcredentials give educators myriad options to choose from, ideally based on need or area of relevant interest. Instead of being based on hours in a chair, microcredentials require demonstration of competency, typically in their own classroom, vetted against a rubric. If an educator falls short of meeting the competency, they receive feedback explaining what they need to improve, and can continue to practice until submitted evidence proves skill mastery. In every aspect, it appears that microcredentials could change the compliance-and-convenience 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. (Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative is one regional educational agency taking this approach.)

What’s more, states and school districts can use microcredentials to better delineate teacher roles and career pathways, and help retain teachers who would otherwise leave the field. For example, they can create a set, or “stack,” of microcredentials that specifically aligns with specific advanced roles such as a “teacher leader,” who supports other teachers and comes with increased compensation. States such as Arkansas are experimenting with this type of approach. 

As of fall 2019, at least 15 states and many more districts have begun to experiment with using microcredentials for educators to meet requirements for certification, professional development, license renewal, and advancement. (Some of these states’ efforts are still being piloted, while others are fully established in statute or regulation.) Momentum is building and if applied correctly, microcredentials could be crucial in moving educator professional development away from the one-size-fits-all broken model toward quality, competency-based teacher empowerment. 

But along with optimism, comes the need for caution. When decision-makers first inserted PD as part of expectations for educators, they thought it would address issues with teacher quality and job satisfaction. Without appropriate structures and oversight, the promise and potential of PD was wasted, and the same could happen for teacher microcredentials. Already there is vast variability in the rigor of the associated resources, evidence requested, and rubrics used to assess that evidence, in part because there is a lack of consensus among stakeholders on the definition of a microcredential and what it should entail.

We know that teaching is ultimately different from coding, largely because defining quality teaching is much more subjective in this human-centric profession, and often dependent on contextual factors outside of educators’ immediate locus of control. Because of this, the design and application of microcredentials for teachers may have to look different too. We must carefully study initial implementations of educator microcredentials to determine what is and isn’t working, and iterate on how microcredentials are being developed and embedded within education policies and practices.

If the successes and failures of current pilots and programs aren’t used as opportunities to learn and improve, microcredentials won’t fulfill the vast potential they hold for K-12 education — or for other public interest fields that look to adopt the technology. At best, they will become the next fad in professional development and advancement, falling off of the radar. At worst, microcredentials will become another medium of delivering ineffective, compliance-based professional learning and advancement opportunities that do not meet the needs of anyone. The choice is ours.