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In an isolated area deep in the Appalachian Mountains, finding enough teachers can be a challenge, to say the least.

And once teachers arrive, schools have to contend with another problem. Educators must meet annual requirements that dictate how much time they spend improving their craft – even though teachers’ colleges aren’t often nestled in such remote locations.

The courses are really focused on [teaching] real kids with real challenges.

One collective of 22 school districts in southeast Kentucky is working on a solution. The group is taking the idea of online delivery of teacher training and amplifying it, turning it into something that can be custom-fit for individual teachers and leaders. The goal is to create not just a replacement for, but an improvement on, the typical courses teachers take to improve their work.

“The courses are really focused on [teaching] real kids with real challenges,” said Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which is working with the 22 school districts and national partners to create the new training.

It’s part of a movement called “micro-credentials,” and while this particular example explains how it can be used to train teachers, the method is also being used elsewhere for other professions and students. The idea behind it is simpler than the buzzy name suggests. These custom-fit courses are meant to show proficiency on a specific skill set, and those who earn a micro-credential can then take additional classes that build upon what they’ve learned. Advocates call this “stacking,” and in some instances it’s seen as a possible alternative to a traditional degree.

In the case of the schools in the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, it’s a solution for a threefold problem: attracting, retaining and training teachers.

“We don’t have a public university in our footprint,” Hawkins said. “It could be a couple hour drive to get to a university.”

The teacher shortage in this area is so acute, Hawkins said, that even elementary school teachers are in short supply in some schools. The cooperative is working with national partners, such as the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Digital Promise, to create the structure for a successful micro-credential program. So far, they have developed three micro-credential courses, with more on the way. And once enough courses are created, these locally developed courses could be used to help certain teachers meet state requirements that they earn a master’s degree, or the equivalent, within five years after they begin teaching. A recent change in state law paved the way for micro-credentials to count toward this.

For educators in schools within the cooperative’s boundaries, the micro-credential courses are free. They are available online, so they can be taken at the hours that are convenient for the teacher. And, unlike some other online courses, the materials have been specially created for this community. So instead of coming up with a hypothetical plan for measuring student progress, for example, teachers can create something in the course that is immediately useful to their work.

“That’s much better for our teachers than a construct that’s created in some other professional development that is not real,” Hawkins said.

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