All Articles Education Educational Leadership New report: 4 keys to a vision that gives education -- and students -- a purpose

New report: 4 keys to a vision that gives education — and students — a purpose

Following the concept laid out in the Portrait of a Graduate, schools can better prepare students for today's and tomorrow's workforce, Mike Duncan writes.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

graduates in royal blue caps and gowns with arms on each other's shoulders, standing in a row, for article on Portrait of a Graduate

(Kingfisher Productions/Getty Images)

When 58% of employers say even college graduates lack the skills they need for entry-level jobs, it prompts questions about what K-12 students are learning. But in answering the “what,” educators sometimes overlook a fundamental question that is just as critical: Why should students be learning this information in the first place? 

SmartBrief Education Insights blurbTo get a better handle on the needs of high-school graduates and the workforce they hope to enter, nonprofit organization Battelle for Kids created a K-12 Portrait of a Graduate framework that defines the essential durable skills students should acquire before leaving school and helps bring this question to the forefront of teaching and learning. It gives a purpose to students’ education and ensures they’re prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. For nearly a decade, the organization has helped more than 135 school districts develop a vision to drive education, and last year, it started working with AASA, the School Superintendents Association, to create a Portrait of a Graduate Academy.  

Report outlines best practices

Now, a new report from Battelle for Kids synthesizes that work so K-12 leaders can craft their own Portrait of the Graduate that guides highly effective instruction and leads to deeper learning.

“The ultimate purpose of the Portrait of a Graduate is to equip students with durable skills that enable them to thrive as either employees or entrepreneurs upon entering the workforce,” says Colon Lewis, chief learning officer for Battelle for Kids.

The Portrait of a Graduate movement acknowledges the need to move beyond test scores to foster a more meaningful and engaging educational experience. Students need to be prepared for today’s jobs and beyond, because 44% of the core skills workers need today are expected to change in the next five years. In emphasizing durable skills that are transferable to a wide range of jobs, including those that don’t yet exist — skills such as creativity, critical thinking, collaborative problem solving and adaptability — an effective Portrait of a Graduate prepares students for success in a rapidly changing world.

As a former superintendent, adopting this approach in my district shifted my focus from mere test scores to infusing education with meaning and joy, emphasizing real-world applications and fostering student independence.

As president and CEO of Battelle for Kids, I want to share four key lessons highlighted in our report, which are gleaned from districts that have undertaken this work for themselves.

1. Make it a collective process

A Portrait of a Graduate is the community’s unifying vision for every student. As such, it should be developed with input from all stakeholders through a collective and collaborative process.

2. Give students a voice

An important part of the process is engaging with students to learn what they want from their education. One student who went through the process said: “I actually felt valued. I felt like the adults wanted to hear from me. I have never felt like this before.”

3. Create a common ground with durable skills

Skills such as creative and collaborative problem-solving “have proven to be something nearly every stakeholder agrees upon,” the report observes. These skills have created a common rallying point that parents, teachers, business leaders and even political leaders can get behind.

4. Remember: The Portrait is only a starting point

The Portrait of a Graduate is a powerful way to create a unified vision with your community, but it isn’t the transformation. It is the catalyst to spark transformation. The Portrait is just the beginning, and it demands hard work and commitment from all stakeholders.

Bringing this vision to life requires a systemwide effort to redesign instruction and professional development so that these activities focus on creating authentic, inquiry-based and student-driven learning experiences. 

The entire system must be aligned, and educators must be empowered and supported. One of the first things we encourage is for districts to bring a team of leaders together to engage in self-reflection. We ask them to look critically at what they are already doing and determine which things bring coherence to the work and which things are out of alignment. 

Examples of success

Districts that have experienced success often create tools for educators and students, such as “I can” statements for students to use in self-reflection and observation tools for leaders to use in their classroom visits.

Fresno Unified School District in California is in the process of creating a Portrait of a Graduate. 

“A good lesson for us is that someone must champion this work,” Interim Superintendent Misty Her says. “The first year we did it, we were in a learning phase, and too many hands got into it, so we couldn’t move the work. The second year we assigned a lead over the work, but it was off to the side of someone’s desk. The person leading this work must have full authority to make decisions and move the work. Moving forward, we are going to designate a champion. This person will convene the cross-functional team, lead the team, map out the work, direct the communication and work directly with the Battelle for Kids team to ensure alignment.”

At Willoughby-Eastlake City Schools in Ohio, the Portrait says their graduates should be adaptable, socially and emotionally competent, collaborators, effective communicators, informed citizens, and critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

“In an era where improving student outcomes and closing [achievement] gaps have been the sole focus, the Portrait of a Graduate work elevates and reorients the conversation around the factors that matter most,” says Superintendent Patrick Ward. “[It] provides authentic levers for real change and lasting impact.”

The landscape of both education and the world of work continue to shift at a faster pace. We, too, must be quicker in responding to these shifts to create an educational system that leaves the past behind and meets the future.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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