Developing a 'Portrait of a Graduate'

Have you heard of the “21 by 2021” movement? It’s an effort by two forward-thinking educational organizations — Battelle for Kids and EdLeader21—to have 21 percent of the nation’s school districts adopt a Portrait of a Graduate. That’s a locally developed vision that articulates the community’s aspirations for their students in a rapidly changing world.

“It’s time for us to take the conversation back to our communities,” said Karen Garza, president of Battelle for Kids, at a Monday Master Class at NSBA’s 2018 annual conference.

Her co-presenter, Ken Kay, chief executive of EdLeader21, said the concept is easy to grasp if you imagine two graduates. Student A has been trained to be proficient in math, science, English, and social studies. Student B has been trained to be proficient in content mastery, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and other abilities that have been identified by education researchers as “21st century” skills.

“Everyone wants student B, but we’re stuck in the student A model,” Kay said. Graduates like student A made good factory workers in the 1950s, but the 21st century workplace needs students who have skills like student B, he said.

He recommended school boards and superintendents lead a four-step process:

1. Plan by engaging stakeholders (parents, teachers, students, employers, representatives of higher education and others). Ask questions such as: What are the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that our community has for our young people? What are the skills and habits of mind that our children need for success in our rapidly changing and complex world? What are the implications for the learning experiences we provide in our school systems?

2. Activate a design team of community members to develop language that articulates what graduates need to be successful professionally and in their personal lives.

3. Create a visual and narrative story that is attractive and easily grasped. It should consist of a prioritized set of competencies, including skills, mindsets, and literacies.

4. Formally adopt your Portrait of a Graduate and implement it.

Superintendent Aaron Spence of Virginia Beach, Virginia, said his district found the process helped them to focus efforts involving existing district initiatives, such as personalized learning.

Need ideas on what a Portrait of a Graduate looks like? Go to and click on “View the Gallery.” The site also has a downloadable Starting Guide for Superintendents. The guide details the process and recommends books and videos.

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