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PD moves toward mastery in K12

Competency-based programs require teachers to display new skills, not just complete a course
  • FINANCIAL INCENTIVES—Teachers in the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin participate in a competency-based PD session. They can receive salary increases when they put new skills into practice.
  • INSTRUCTIONAL SUPPORT—A teacher works with students in North Carolina’s Alamance-Burlington School System. Peer coaching and classroom observations play key roles in the district’s competency-based PD program.

Teachers today have more control over how and when they receive professional development. Whether the learning is self-paced, online or partially in-person, more districts measure PD based on the new skills teachers can display in their classrooms rather than on how long they spend listening to an instructor.

For example, veteran social studies teacher Kurt Morris, who works in the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin, says competency-based PD has made him better at designing and delivering assessments.

“It’s not about changing effective teaching,” says Morris, whose district offers financial incentives for competency-based PD achievements. “It’s about expanding ideas and delivering resources for teachers who want to improve their already great classroom ideas with new ideas, new paths and new paradigms.”

Entire states, such as Tennessee and Florida, have launched competency-based PD options. Many teachers now earn microcredentials or digital badges to show that they have advanced their knowledge of specialized topics.

Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise, which works with school districts to provide competency-based badges and microcredentials, says: “Because there are multiple learning opportunities available, recognizing learning that has taken place is important, whether it happened through books, experts, peers, face-to-face or online.”

Advantages of competency-based PD

  • Teachers personalize their learning by choosing topics in which they want to build competence. 
  • Teachers can participate throughout their careers—rather than just at the beginning or at specified intervals. 
  • Teachers prove competency in their classroom by showing evidence of new skills.
  • Teachers learn actively, rather than sitting passively in a lecture or course.

Stacking skills statewide

Personalized PD has become a priority at the Tennessee Department of Education, which in 2016 launched a competency-based program using a set of 15 microcredentials in topics such as research and how to ask more effective questions.

“It’s very difficult to change student learning if we are not changing adult learning,” says Paul Fleming, assistant commissioner of the education department’s teachers and leaders division. “Personalized learning for teachers is a really important option.”

The year-long pilot paired about 30 novice teachers with mentor-educators who had four to nine years of experience. These pairs, often from the same school, focused on lesson planning together.

Machel Mills, the education department’s director of professional learning, says competency-based PD appeals to districts because it provides stronger evidence of teacher growth.

“Competency-based is the way districts justify the resources and the time spent on professional learning,” Mills says.

The pilot led Tennessee to change its teacher licensure policy. Teachers must now accrue a certain number of PD points—including microcredentials—for either license renewal or advancement.

In the 2017-18 academic year, the pilot will add a leadership pathway that offers a set of four microcredentials that explore how teachers impact their schools beyond their classrooms.

Dana Beruk Siegel, an ESL teacher at Tennessee’s Collierville School District, has participated in a wide range of PD during her 36 years in education. Competency-based PD represents a major advancement over traditional training programs “where the presenter or facilitator hoped or assumed that one session would shift my teaching practice,” she says.

Tennessee’s microcredentials, like many competency-based options that have been introduced elsewhere, are “stacked”—or connected by a theme and targeted outcomes. This allows teachers to build their skills through more advanced levels of PD.

“The design enhances a deeper understanding and more successful implementation of teaching strategies that result in stronger student learning,” Siegel says.

Advantages of competency-based PD (cont.)

  • Teachers complete most of this PD online, which means they can access it anytime. 
  • Teachers gain third-party, objective feedback.
  • When teachers personalize learning for themselves, they can more effectively personalize instruction for their students.

Created by teachers, for teachers

Kettle Moraine School District teachers receive additional compensation for earning competency-based microcredentials. The financial incentive pays off for the rest of their careers, Superintendent Patricia Deklotz says. “It’s an increase to the teacher’s base pay, so it’s in effect over the tenure that they are employed,” Deklotz says.

The Kettle Moraine district pays its teachers—nearly 90 percent of whom participate—an additional $2,000 per year for earning a microcredential on topics such as collaborative classroom teaching and personalized learning. A microcredential in close reading was offered because the district had prioritized increasing literacy in special education students.

“We have been able to close the achievement gap by over 20 percent over the past three years,” Deklotz says. “The close reading microcredential was part of our tiered strategy.”

Teachers, who can work together on PD, must submit evidence—such as samples of student work and written reflections—that they’ve brought their new skills to the classroom.

Working collaboratively helps teachers “see themselves as learners and experts in their profession, rather than waiting for someone from the outside to be the one that leads them in their learning,” Deklotz says.

Teachers can also develop their own microcredentials by submitting a proposal for review by colleagues. For example, a high school art teacher who is an expert in ceramics developed a microcredential in open-hearth firing techniques. “It really allows teachers to look at where they feel they need to grow,” Deklotz says.

Teachers in the Cumberland County School District in North Carolina also create competency-based PD modules, such as Teaching Social Studies in the 21st Century, Positive Conversations in Math, Creating Non-Fiction Texts in the Science Classroom, and K-5 Balanced Literacy Framework. Teachers spent up to six months developing the courses.

This PD system allows the district’s 3,300 teachers to assess how their new skills have improved instruction and gives them a sense of agency in their own professional goals, says Theresa Perry, director of professional development for Cumberland County Schools.

“We wanted to see evidence of impact on practice, as well as evidence of impact on student performance,” Perry says. “Most of the time with professional development and face-to-face opportunities you don’t have the follow-up to see it actually translate into practice for the teacher or for performance for the student.”

Moving from novice to master

Competency-based PD in the Alamance-Burlington School System in North Carolina has a unique, personalized component: peer coaching. This is one of the most effective ways to transfer new skills to teachers, says Robin Finberg, executive director of the district’s curriculum and professional development department.

“The coaching aspect is where we can personalize the support for our teachers and ensure implementation in the classroom,” Finberg says.

District curriculum specialists, who serve as the coaches, visit classrooms throughout the year. They observe and provide feedback on specific skills and practices during and after instruction, she adds.

“It really puts the teacher in the driver’s seat, and the teacher really determines to what degree they need the coaching support,” Finberg says. “The format builds upon previous skills and competencies to gradually support teachers moving along the continuum from novice to experienced to master.”

Competency-based PD allows teachers to improve their practice throughout their careers, she adds. “It doesn’t just happen when we’re in our undergraduate programs or when we’re in our first couple of years as a beginning teacher.”

Microcredential Resources


Elaina Loveland is a writer in northern Virginia.