Changing the Culture of Professional Learning Through Micro-Credentialing

A deputy superintendent at a large district in Texas explains how her district is transforming professional learning through micro-credentialing.

With 54 school campuses and nearly 40,000 students, Richardson ISD has been recognized in Texas and nationally for educational excellence despite nearly 60% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. The district has a strong commitment to professional learning. According to Tabitha Branum, Deputy Superintendent of Schools for Richardson ISD, “Whether you’re a first-year or 20-year teacher, part of what makes our profession so special is that we continue to want to grow. The kids are always changing, so we need new innovations.”

Branum uses a brick analogy to describe Richardson ISD’s professional learning system. “Every aspect of work we do as a district, every person, every department is a brick. Professional development is the mortar that binds it together.” Bricks in Richardson include cultural competence and anti-bias, technology proficiency, Tier 1 instructional practices, strategies to build relationships and connect with students, and many more. The “mortar” of professional development creates a strong foundation that allows teachers to thrive.

Richardson ISD, like many districts, had fallen into what Branum calls the “hamster wheel routine” of requiring teachers to earn a certain number of hours, being told how to earn them and which sessions to attend, providing points by a number of hours, then checking the “done” box. Most teachers exceed the hours required, yet they still always ask how many hours professional development sessions are worth and which “bucket” they count toward, rather than viewing professional development as an opportunity to learn and wonder. Barnum wants teachers to shift the mindset of educators from “earning to learning”, thinking of professional development as a way to learn something meaningful and relevant.

TRANSITIONING TO A NEW PROFESSIONAL LEARNING MODEL  

Richardson ISD also had a practical reason to make a change to their professional development program. The district participates in the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA), a consortium of Texas districts interested in using assessment data to track student growth and linking that growth to teacher compensation. Branum knew a one-size-fits-all model was not going to work within the TIA model. The TIA inspired Richardson ISD to use the opportunity to introduce badging, also known as micro-credentialing, into the professional development system. They began the process with the four campuses participating in TIA.

The district defines micro-credentials as engagement in a series of learning experiences that lead to a defined outcome. The outcome might be a learning objective, a skillset, or an artifact. Teachers engage in professional development that leads to the outcome. The actualization of that outcome results in certification, or a badge. Richardson ISD provides a physical badge to teachers, which they hang outside their classrooms. This external validation has helped reshape professional learning experiences in the participating schools. “It may seem trivial, but when a teacher sees someone has a badge in social-emotional learning, for example, they might ask for advice or coaching.”, observes Branum. Teachers choose which and how many badges to complete based on what works best for them as a learner. If they are able to demonstrate application, there is a clear outcome, which has already done much to change the culture of the participating campuses.

Ultimately, Richardson ISD is interested in whether or not the educator really learned and grew in a way that allowed them to apply something different in their classroom that led to different outcomes. They wanted a systematic way that is not too abstract or complex to understand the micro-credentialing process. They know teachers are busy and they wanted to find a way to allow them to submit evidence of growth and learning that leads to student outcomes and helps teachers immediately.

TRANSFORMING THROUGH MICRO-CREDENTIALS

Currently, in year one, micro-credentials are focused on teachers. In the future, Richardson ISD plans to add counselors, librarians, and support staff. Currently, the district offers 12 different badges that range from 16 to 225 points based on how complex and time-consuming they are to complete. Each level of TIA is based on the number of points earned so teachers can decide which level they’d like to reach. “We want to treat educators as professionals,” says Branum. “They know their strengths and the kids that they teach. They decide what best meets their needs and what to engage in to get better.”

The library of choices teachers can select from is growing. For example, teachers can choose to complete a bilingual education badge worth 225 points for about 25 hours of work and submit 9 artifacts to help meet the needs of ESL learners in their class or they can choose a classroom management badge for 30 points, which requires 2 courses and 3 artifacts, then move on to another topic. One badge Branum is particularly proud of is the Campus Leader credential. For this badge, teachers design their own experience in collaboration with their assistant principal and principal who mentor them throughout the process. A teacher might, for example, decide to redesign intervention time, choosing resources and materials and monitoring their effect on student learning. “These teachers are already rockstars. They are proud and passionate about their projects and model that independence for their students,” says Branum. “They have the foundation, so how do we foster their leadership so they are willing to share their gifts and talents with others?”

After consulting with a central micro-credential team and teachers with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and motivations, Richardson ISD uses a combination of district-created and purchased micro-credentials. Purchased micro-credentials come from trusted district partners, like Defined Learning, who have content already designed and built and are willing to customize to the local context. Others they build themselves, with each department creating badges for topics they are experts in. The professional learning team in each department edits reviews and gives final approval for each credential. Each credential has a rubric customized to match the artifacts teachers will submit. It is reviewed by the expert department that has the depth and breadth of content knowledge to determine proficiency. The reviewer gives feedback, both formatively and summatively, throughout the process and provides coaching and support as needed.

SCALING PROFESSIONAL LEARNING

The next challenge for Richardson ISD involves scaling the project from the 320 teachers and 4 campuses currently participating to expand to the entire district. They are determining how to maintain the level of quality, support, and meaningful feedback and determining the best infrastructure to link the learning management system with other systems, like human resources and the existing teacher evaluation system. Current campus teachers will be used as ambassadors. They will share the outcomes they experienced and what it was like to go through the micro-credentialing process. Branum believes a teacher needs to hear from a peer, someone who is walking in their footsteps and wearing the same shoes as they are.

Despite the challenges of scaling, the culture in Richardson ISD is already changing. For example, in the past, the district had a summer conference that usually lasted 3 days. Branum jokes the messaging was, “Come for these 3 days and be transformed! Get your hours and you’re a great teacher! In June! When all the children have left!” This year, they are switching to an unconference. It will be available over 90 days, for the entire summer. Teachers can access content just in time when they are ready in a variety of environments and formats.

Richardson ISD is still early in its journey toward transforming professional learning through micro-credentialing, but Branum already has advice for other systems looking to transition from a “you have to” to a “here’s a learning opportunity” mindset. “If you try to cram micro-credentials into your current system and expect teachers to embrace it, I don’t know how successful you will be. It will feel like another layer. You haven’t proven as a district that you’ve changed your mind about professional learning. It’s critical to redesign the entire system as you introduce it. When you do that, teachers will see, this is just how we learn in our district.”


About the Author: 

Meghan Raftery is a curriculum consultant with special interests in authentic learning, literacy and content integration, and student engagement.  She can be reached at rafterymeghan@gmail.com


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