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Portrait of a Graduate — A Trend in the Right Direction

The concept of a “portrait of a graduate” begs the question, what kind of citizens do we want coming out of the K-12 pipeline? The answer should guide decisions going forward and be an ongoing community conversation.

Silhouette of a person in a graduation cap and gown holding up a rolled piece of paper tied with a bow.
There are many discussions happening about what the ideal “portrait of a graduate” looks like — schools, districts and entire states are engaged in the exploration process. I think that is a good thing. It shakes up schools and systems that have graduation requirements based on completing a set number of courses or earning a certain number of credits, regardless of what students know or can do. This is the seat-time story: going through the motions on a set schedule instead of learning. To move from that system, a community-developed portrait of a graduate is an essential element of successful school transformation.

The Barr Foundation hosted a webinar, available to watch online, on the portrait of a graduate “because it is an essential tool in high school design efforts.”

“We know that too many students graduate from high school without being prepared for life after high school. Our high school design partners are developing a local portrait of a graduate that provides a collective vision and articulates the community’s aspirations for all students,” the foundation’s website says.

Although it’s new to me, I like the work of Portrait of a Graduate by Battelle for Kids. They make it clear that a well-developed portrait can “serve as a North Star for system transformation.”

“Providing strategic direction for the redesign of the overall educational experience for students, this collective vision reinvigorates and re-engages students, educators, and community stakeholders,” Battelle’s website says. And most importantly, they know that “[e]very school system’s portrait will be unique, reflecting the shared vision of the community,” with the aspiration that “all students have an educational experience preparing them to thrive in the future.”

For this process to work, a) it is vital for the community to be engaged, and b) when completed, every part of the community owns the portrait, and it serves to guide all thinking about student learning and what every minute of every day should be about.

In a 2021 blog post, One Schoolhouse’s Peter Gow shares a unique viewpoint on how to do this successfully, based on his work with independent schools. He notes that it has to be used to guide the school in all that it does: “And of course the exercise and a subsequent and ongoing review can also help a school to discover itself, to see how mission and values — made manifest in academic and other programs — could inform its identity in ways that might truly differentiate the school and the experiences of its students in ways that ‘pay off’ in instrumental and material ways for the institution, for those it serves, and even for its faculty and staff.”

At least two states that I’m aware of are doing this work well. Washington state’s Board of Education has been working on this since 2019, focusing on mastery-based learning. When they began this process, they explained why they needed it in their 2019 Interim Report: the “workgroup is embarking on an exciting journey to reimagine our state’s education system.” They believed that “mastery-based learning (MBL) is a way to transform our education system — with this approach, teaching methods are designed to equitably engage each and every student in ways that best support the individual student’s learning journey. Additionally, through the focus on student voice and choice in learning, MBL prepares all students for the workforce of the future by allowing them to experience ownership over their own learning process.”

They were inspired to change by their observation that “Washington’s education system reflects our larger world where for too long, structural inequities have gone unaddressed, leading to generations of underserved students not receiving the high-quality education they deserve. Although there are students who do well in our current system, many of them are not thriving.” They “believe that Washington has an imperative to shift the focus of our education system from an industrial model that sorts students to one that intentionally supports every student in developing the range of dynamic skills we want to see in each graduate of our public K-12 system.” Their more recent 2021 report documents their process and the progress they have made, and it makes good reading.

Washington is taking it slow and engaging in lots of community dialogue. This is essential to ensuring buy-ins from all sectors and getting it right. (I recently sat in on a student-input session and students were able to point out some things the educators seemed to have missed!) As a lifelong advocate of mastery or proficiency credits, I am very impressed with all of their work. Other states could do well to follow their process mode.

Utah is another state addressing the same issues. Utah’s Personalized Competency-Based Learning Framework is the bridge between Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate and the work of Utah’s educators, students and families to achieve the learning outcomes as described in Utah’s Core Standards and the P-20 Competencies. There are many benefits to this approach. The framework says that the “Personalized, Competency-Based Learning (PCBL) approach empowers students to take responsibility for their learning by giving them voice, choice, and customized support to achieve success in the essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions described in Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate. PCBL shifts the focus of the classroom from teaching to a culture of learning, based on well-defined learning targets for each learner.”

These challenging and courageous transformations are exciting ways to address the issues of educational equity. And these are just two examples of many other states, systems, and schools engaged in this process. At the Delphian School in Oregon, we attribute our success from our opening in 1976 to the development of General Requirements for Graduation, with lesser (but integrated) requirements for each level of our program. The magic was that we were able to state them only in terms of skills and abilities, not completed courses of study. I know firsthand the power of this approach!

Starting with community-developed portraits of a graduate is the right way to begin the transformation of our schools from industrial models that only meet the needs of some of our students to schools that prepare all of our students for their 21st-century futures!
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.