Micro-credentials are a form of professional development (PD) that breaks down a scholarly topic or general skill into its discrete parts, requiring a demonstration of competency in each segment of that skill via a portfolio or performance assessment. The pursuer is awarded a micro-credential after demonstrating competency, and individual credentials can then be “stacked” to collectively represent a proven body of knowledge (see chart below). This form of PD elevates and officially recognizes the outcomes of learners as they not only learn about discrete embedded skills in a scholarly topic, but they also must apply the skill in their practice and demonstrate their pedagogical growth as a result.

Micro-Credentials’ Place in Teacher Education

Elizabeth Green, author of Building a Better Teacher, explains that effective teachers need a certain level of talent, a significant body of knowledge, and a degree of expertise in a content area to positively impact the students they serve. When teachers do not realize improved student outcomes, a cognitive dissonance erupts. According to the article “New Finding: Most States Don’t Test New Teachers on ‘Science of Reading,’” by Kevin Mahnken, “The National Center for Teacher Quality estimates that just 37 percent of all teacher preparation programs around the country provide instruction in scientifically based teaching methods.” Teachers are teaching what they were taught in their institutions of higher education, yet specific and significant gaps in their knowledge base exist; consequently, their students are not achieving in ways that they expect. Micro-​credentials are uniquely designed to fill targeted knowledge gaps and give way to required, embedded, and simultaneous practice. By completing a stack, the teacher gains a degree of expertise in a specific content area—amplifying their efficacy and insulating them from that cognitive dissonance.

In this specific area, teachers are looking for answers. More than 40,000 teachers have become members of the Facebook group called “Science of Reading: What I Should Have Learned in College.” The purpose of this group is to connect research to practice, according to its founder, Donna Trinca Schultz Heitmanek, who does yeoman’s work on behalf of these members. Teachers fresh out of college, as well as very experienced educators who feel inadequate and ineffectual, post their questions, concerns, and frustrations, while others who have knowledge and skill in the “Science of Reading” offer answers, resources, and support to the best of their abilities. A recent post to this Facebook group by Lynn Messer exemplifies those of her fellow members: “As a teacher I felt my training was inadequate (actually nonexistent) and I realized that if I want to provide a quality education to my students, I needed to take it upon myself to learn.” Micro-​credentials can be a reliable source for the answers that these teachers seek.

The Learning Policy Institute

A change in preservice teacher education programs is absolutely necessary. In-service teachers truly need and want a lifeline to fill the gaps created by their preservice education programs.


The Learning Policy Institute conducted a meta-analysis to determine keys to effective PD:

  • Driven by student outcomes
  • Targeted or content focused
  • Delivered by an expert (researchers or authors of programs)
  • Occurs over a sustained duration of 30 or more quality hours
  • Incorporates active learning
  • Supports collaboration or has job-​embedded contexts
  • Demonstrates or models the curriculum or instruction
  • Provides coaching and expert support
  • Offers feedback and reflection

In a broad sense, teacher PD should build content knowledge (the what) to develop pedagogy (the how) to achieve greater student outcomes (the goal). This equation would resolve the cognitive dissonance experienced by thousands of teachers. Micro-credentials are designed to specifically address the what and the how. They reflect each of the key aspects of effective PD; they are targeted, often including a variety of presentations, webinars, podcasts, research, and texts by experts in the field, which in turn require many hours of engagement. The mandatory application to practice is the cornerstone of micro-credentials and ensures both active learning and job-embedded deployment, resulting in a portfolio or performance submission to be reviewed for approval by the scholar expert. Coaching with support and corrective feedback to build participants’ metacognitive understanding are also aspects of quality micro-credentials. The sum of these qualities upgrades this form of PD from more typical lecture-style workshops or general course options.

Equally important is how teachers are using that knowledge to achieve greater student outcomes.

Take, for example, the common usage of Student Learning Objective (SLO) or Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound (SMART) goals, both of which imply that achievable and measurable learning takes place. The goal must be approved by the teacher’s administrator, and annual progress checks are supposed to be undertaken during the teacher’s annual review. This condition places a shared degree of responsibility for fulfillment between the administrator and the teacher.

While the premise of SLO and SMART goals seem to align to Adult Learning Theory, the teachers themselves must design the plan to achieve the goal. They must create the job-embedded experiences that could lead to a transformation of pedagogy. Imagine having a targeted, motivational transformative experience with a map, plan, or context already provided. You would want experts accessible at one’s fingertips, application activities embedded, varied formats to complement the learner’s style—including video, audio, graphic, and text resources. Envision a tangible end product, including evidence from several options to demonstrate a competency. Finally, appreciate the outside evaluation by a scholar with expertise in the specific content and skill who provides feedback and guidance. Choosing micro-credentials to fulfill a SLO or SMART goal covers all that ground and takes some of the oversight off the plates of the administrator. These are key aspects of micro-credentials that set this type of PD apart from the boilerplate version and what we need for our 21st-century educators.

Micro-credentials are not necessarily all the same in their design and integrity; however, the offering should target a discrete skill or specific aspect of a body of knowledge that has applicability to one’s practice and demonstrates sufficiently its competent use by the practitioner. If, for example, the students in a teacher’s class were not achieving proficiency in reading on the state assessments, the teacher could seek to build and deepen her knowledge about the Science of Reading by pursuing micro-credentials targeting the neurology of reading—learning how the brain acquires the ability to read and, when acquisition is not occurring, which neurological processing systems are likely to be malfunctioning. Upon completion of that prerequisite micro- credential, that teacher can then choose to pursue more knowledge and deeper understanding of specific aspects of reading acquisition. This pursuit drills down and deepens the teacher’s knowledge as well as broadens pedagogical practices that causally relate to improving the outcomes for the students who were underachieving. The same can be said for any other subject matter or learning target.

Building a body of knowledge by mastering a collective of micro-credentials testifies to a depth of understanding about that topic of study, filling the gap teachers are longing to fill. This outcome is the goal of school administrators, when they approve SLO and SMART goals, contracting PD presenters or approving various requests for PD, but is far too often not met. Micro-credentials provide competency-​based assurances and develop educator expertise that can translate to the improved student outcomes that the administrator and the system strive to achieve.

Micro-credentials meet the standards for efficacious PD, building specific and deep content knowledge for the purpose of improving pedagogy to achieve better student outcomes. This active engagement over a significant period of time allows learning to occur, knowledge to grow and develop, and fosters long-term memory building for future use. Micro-​credentials are grounded in Adult Learning Theory in that teachers have choice and time—and because they are job embedded. Micro-​credentials offer a means for the teachers to make sense of their newly acquired knowledge and skill and are a legitimate and valuable PD option, worthy of serious consideration by any teacher, administrator, school district, state educational department, or educational policy influencer.

Cheri McManus is an adjunct professor at Drexel University and lives in Hopkinton, NH. She also designs micro-credentials that target reading acquisition and dyslexia through READ New England.

Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Human Capital Management

Retain staff members and develop their skills. Ensure that opportunities exist for staff members to develop their skills through efforts that are job-embedded, individualized for their needs, and appropriate for adult learners. By developing systems and protocols, you and your leadership team can provide regular, actionable feedback to drive improvements in staff members’ practice. Staff members should have development plans that help them fulfill their greatest potential in driving student learning, and you should work to ensure that resources are available for those staff development efforts. Just as schools care for the student as a whole child, you, too, can care for your staff members’ well-being and work-life balance. Doing so will help retain top talent and anticipate successions and turnover to minimize disruptions in student learning.

Human Capital Management is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.