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Perspective | N.C.’s teacher learning system needs micro-credentials to move our teachers, students forward

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Research shows that high-quality, effective teachers are the most important factor in determining students’ success in school. Yet schools across the nation are finding it harder and harder to attract and retain teachers.

To get and keep highly skilled teachers, we must support them with an innovative system of professional learning — one that allows teachers to learn and demonstrate timely, relevant knowledge and skills that immediately help them in their classroom and their career. In this innovative system, we need to expand our definition of teacher learning beyond the current “one size fits all” model, which focuses on seat time over demonstration of skill, with best-practice learning delivered through micro-credentials.

Micro-credentials continue to emerge as a vehicle for delivering effective professional learning and developing, recognizing, and retaining strong teachers.

Done well, micro-credentials give teachers the opportunity to learn and demonstrate knowledge and skills while receiving feedback from an outside evaluator and earning public recognition. Micro-credentials are also accessible — in most cases, teachers can complete a micro-credential online in their own time and in their own way through public and private digital platforms.

Yet, the standards and policies for using micro-credentials as part of a teacher learning system are not consistent, in part because states’ incoherent professional development and licensure policies focus on merely encouraging compliance rather than true opportunities to foster teacher growth.

While teachers are taking advantage of current micro-credentials offered, the credential is not always recognized by their school, district, or state as a part of their professional growth. As a result, micro-credentials have limited impact on teacher practice, career advancement, or reward. Micro-credential providers are operating without oversight and with different quality standards. Incentives, if offered, are not always aligned with practices that best support schools.

While other states are exploring how to integrate micro-credentials into their professional learning for teachers, North Carolina can be the first state to develop a system of professional learning integrated with model micro-credential standards, criteria for credentialing agencies, and model policy.

Last year, digiLEARN and the North Carolina State Board of Education developed the NC Partnership for Micro-Credentials with other state and national partners, including RTI International, New America, Digital Promise, Bloomboard, the Learning Policy Institute, and the National Education Association. Our work is based on the premise that micro-credentials for teachers could be a potential strategy for ensuring that every student has a high-quality and effective teacher.

We have identified several elements in state and local policies and practices that appear to be preventing effective implementation of micro-credentials, along with recommendations for how to move forward toward integrating micro-credentials into teacher learning. We’ve done this by conducting and analyzing national research, a state level feasibility study, stakeholder focus groups, and a statewide survey of educators and education leaders.

Now, we offer the following considerations and preliminary recommendations as the next steps toward further implementing micro-credentials in North Carolina:

  • We must evolve the teacher professional development system from one of compliance to one that fosters growth. Integrating micro-credentials into educator professional development can be instrumental in making this change.
  • For micro-credentials to reach their full potential, states, not local education agencies, should determine quality and standards so micro-credentials have a recognized value and are portable across the state and, ultimately, the nation.
  • Micro-credentials are not a replacement for other high quality professional development and learning options but instead an expansion of opportunities for professional growth and career advancement.
  • However, states need to be deliberate and provide a process for micro-credential quality to ensure portability; time for teachers to collaborate, develop, and demonstrate skills; human capital support with mentors and coaches; sufficient financial support; and equity so all districts can participate.

COVID-19 continues to cause unprecedented demand for reinventing what teachers do and how they help students learn. As a long-time leader in education, North Carolina has the opportunity to take this moment and transform how teachers teach, and therefore, how they help their students learn.

Bev Perdue

A former public school teacher, Bev Perdue served as the first female Governor of North Carolina from 2009 to 2013. She is the founder of DigiLEARN, a nonprofit working to narrow achievement and skills gaps by greater use of technology to expand learning options for students and instructional opportunities for teachers.