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Administration & Leadership

Why School Leaders Should Develop a Portrait of a Graduate

A new book explains how school leaders can support teachers and students by sharing their vision of what it means to be a successful student today.

August 16, 2021
Teachers meeting in classroom
Allison Shelley / American Education

Today, much attention focuses on the “achievement gap” as the central problem facing education. We do not want to minimize the persistent disparities that subgroups of students continue to experience. Indeed, in many communities, the Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on longstanding racial and socioeconomic inequities that society—and our schools—must address.

But there’s another gap we also must close if we want to create a more equitable education system. The achievement gap reflects academic measurement criteria that are more than 50 years old and are not central to student success today. It’s time to shift the conversation to the gap between the competencies students are graduating with today and where they need to be if they are going to be ready for the challenges they will face in life, citizenship, and work. We call this the readiness gap.

The leaders highlighted at the beginning of this chapter were all focused on this readiness gap. They may not have used this phrase, but the gap in critical skills has driven all of their transformation work.

There is one more step you need to take by yourself: Determine your own ideas about the “North Star” for this work. It is not enough to define the readiness gap, which describes a system deficiency. You now must begin to define your own initial ideas for the system’s destination before you gather your community to move forward with you in the process.

For Steve Holmes, superintendent in Sunnyside School District in Tucson, Arizona, the question leaders must answer for themselves is this: “What are your core beliefs around students and learning, and what do you want to head the organization toward?”

To define that destination, begin by articulating your own “first cut” of the student outcomes you want your students to have at the end of their time with you. You may be tempted to focus on familiar programs and strategies, such as competency-based education, project-based learning, performance tasks, capstones, portfolios, and so forth. Those may be part of your implementation, but strategies and tactics are not your destination. The destination will comprise the attributes you want your students to be able to acquire and demonstrate. Imagine, for example, a graduate who can:

  • Quickly master a new content area
  • Utilize empathy and inquiry to consider the potential application of the content to practical problems
  • Effectively communicate the importance of the content subject and its application
  • Work creatively with others to pursue practical solutions using their content mastery and other skills
  • Collaborate around creative problem solving

Spend some time constructing your own version of this list. Your version will serve as a helpful starting point as you describe to your community the kind of vision you want to co-create with them.

One question almost inevitably will arise: What is the name or label for the work ahead? We asked the 40-some superintendents we interviewed for this book, all of whom had pursued their own community’s vision of a 21st-century graduate, what name they gave to this work. We heard an incredible variety of responses:

  • Portrait of a Graduate
  • Profile of a Graduate
  • Vision of a Graduate
  • Life Ready Graduate
  • The 4 C’s, or 5 C’s, or 7 C’s, or 10 C’s
  • Deeper Learning
  • Equity
  • Student-Centered Instruction
  • The Strategic Plan
  • Inspire 2025

It is clear that leaders who have taken on this vision challenge have not been constrained by a one-size-fits-all term or title. In fact, they have customized their title to fit the specific context of their school or district. For the purposes of this book, we will call this vision the Portrait of a Graduate (POG). Hundreds of districts have adopted this overarching vision.

Adopting Your Portrait of a Graduate

We strongly recommend you adopt a POG because, in our experience, it is the single most powerful thing you can do to launch your school or district on its journey to redefine student success. Arriving at a POG involves a customized process by which a school or district adopts its own set of student outcomes to serve as the North Star for its transformation. If your community already has a POG, you will need to determine if it is time to do a review and refresh of it. Most communities with a POG update it every four to five years.

We hope you will appreciate the power of adopting a POG. It is not merely the adoption of a slogan, visual aid, or poster. Those schools and districts that seek to fully plumb the value of a POG will see that the ramifications can be broad and profound.

We asked the superintendents we interviewed what they considered to be the biggest impact of their creation of a POG. Their responses clustered around four powerful impacts.

The first impact is unity of vision. Leaders noted that having the POG created the power of a common vision. There was now clarity around what they wanted for students. They were clear that, while content mastery remains important, standardized tests were no longer the single metric for student success, and that readiness is broader than test scores. Rich Fry, superintendent in Big Spring, Pennsylvania, worked on a POG with his board and community eight years ago and now notes, “We haven’t talked about a test score in a board meeting in eight years.” Several superintendents observed that the POG “pushed us to define what we mean by success.”

An important second impact of the POG is better alignment in the system. This result is perhaps best captured by Mike McCormack, superintendent of the Val Verde School District in California, who observed: “The POG seemed to verify a lot of complex ideas in education. For about six years, the dots weren’t connecting. What is the point of performance assessment? Restorative justice? PLC? PBL? We had a spiderweb of initiatives. The POG seemed to us to be a unifying force for people to build a mental model so each of the discrete initiatives could rise up and be part of one unified umbrella. It helps people determine where we are going and where they fit in.”

Eric Eshbach, currently the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, used the POG to guide his team when he was superintendent in Northern York County, Pennsylvania. “The POG was a target that showed us the direction to head in. We used it as the criteria by which all changes and initiatives would be judged. Everything needs to go through the POG lens. My administrators had to show me how their work is tied to our POG goals.”

The third impact is that of promoting student agency and self-direction. The attributes of the POG put students at the center of the educational model and emphasize the need for self-regulation and autonomy. The POG also pushes educators toward more personalization and self-assessment.

Finally, superintendents describe the impact of the POG on teaching. The POG shifts the focus of pedagogy toward more teacher facilitation and coaching and less direct instruction. Teachers are encouraged to embrace the challenge to experiment and are being given permission to occasionally fail.

Ken Kay and Suzie Boss, Redefining Student Success: Building a New Vision to Transform Leading, Teaching, and Learning. Copyright ©2022 by Corwin. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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