A Shared Aspiration for All Students


By Karen Garza, President and CEO

Every school system is unique, but they are all connected by a shared aspiration: that all students have an educational experience that prepares them for success in college, in careers, and in life. Now more than ever, that experience must not only provide for the acquisition of rigorous academic content, but it must also be more intentional about fostering critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and other 21st century skills that our young people need to navigate this complex, rapidly changing world. 

In his book Helping Children Succeed (2016), Paul Tough says that to thrive in a more dynamic economy and globally connected world, students must have the ability to:  
  • Work in teams;
  • Present ideas to a group;
  • Write effectively;
  • Think deeply and analytically about problems; and
  • Take information and techniques learned in one context and adapt them to a new and unfamiliar problem or situation.

The New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman also argues in Thank You for Being Late (2016) that in an age of accelerations, “our educational systems must be retooled to maximize these needed skills and attributes: strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits; and entrepreneurship and improvisation—at every level.” 

In 2014, as superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), our district adopted the Portrait of a Graduate, a comprehensive articulation of what the community believes students should know and be able to do when they leave FCPS. Developed over one year, first with leadership from a 75-member task force—including teachers, principals, parents, school board members, and local business and community leaders—followed by input from many others, the Portrait of a Graduate is an effort to look beyond the high-stakes testing environment to help students nurture skills they need to succeed in the workforce of the future and in life. The Portrait of a Graduate in FCPS is a: 
  • Communicator: Applies effective reading and writing skills, engages in active listening, and speaks in a purposeful manner to inform, influence, and motivate others. 
  • Collaborator: Demonstrates an ability to work interdependently within a group to promote learning, increase productivity, and achieve common goals.
  • Ethical and Global Citizen: Understands and respects diverse perspectives and cultures, and contributes to solutions that benefit the broader community. 
  • Creative and Critical Thinker: Engages in problem solving, inquiry, and design of innovative solutions to overcome obstacles to improve outcomes.
  • Goal-Directed and Resilient Individual: Persists to accomplish difficult tasks and to overcome academic and personal barriers to meet goals. 

The Portrait of a Graduate served as the foundation of the FCPS Strategic Plan 2015‒2020 and provided some influence leading to the passage of legislation in 2016 directing the Virginia Board of Education to develop and implement a Portrait of a Graduate for all students in the state. Many other school systems across the country are using similar processes to engage their community in re-envisioning education for their young people. 

I believe our nation’s schools are better than they have ever been before. Yet in a world where success is increasingly dependent not just on what you know, but how you can communicate, collaborate, innovate, and think critically, school systems must continue to adapt to meet the needs of today’s learners and to effectively prepare students for success in this ever-changing economy. This change will not be easy, but can be accomplished through broader engagement of the school community. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also provides a unique opportunity for states and school systems to reshape teaching and learning—from curriculum design, to professional development and support for teachers, to the adoption of balanced assessment frameworks—around the development of 21st century skills. 

Business leaders, educators, parents, and communities are calling for a transformation of educational systems across America. There is a compelling intersection around the vision and aspirations of each of these groups. We know that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful, authentic work aligned to real world challenges and their unique interests. We know that teachers want to be able to focus on the design of learning that is interesting, inspiring, and nurtures student growth. Parents want their children to be engaged and excited about learning as part of an experience that prepares them for future success. And, the business community wants to hire employees who can communicate, collaborate, innovate, and solve problems. 

If we are to have a more equitable and effective education system, explains Andrew Rotherham and Daniel Willingham, “skills that have been the province of the few must become universal.” The portrait of a graduate will look different in each school system, but we are driven by a shared goal in this work that ALL students have access to an educational experience that fosters hope, engagement, and the knowledge and skills they need for future success. 

Like school systems across the country, Battelle for Kids is also rethinking how we engage in this important work. We want to contribute in a meaningful way to help school systems—in partnership with educators, parents, business leaders, and communities—redesign teaching and learning around 21st century skills and foster an environment that creates lasting impact for students. As we shape our future, we have been actively listening to school leaders across the country. We will share more about what we have learned from the field and our future approach in the coming months. 

Karen Garza, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Battelle for Kids and formerly the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. Connect with her on Twitter at @KGarzaBFK


Contact us to learn more about how we help districts realize the power and promise of 21st century learning for every student.