Creating a Portrait of a Graduate: 3 Keys to Success

By Ken Kay


One of the most exciting and innovative developments in K-12 education over the last several years has been the adoption by school districts of a Portrait of a Graduate, describing what students should know and be able to do to succeed in college, careers, and citizenship in the 21st century. Superintendents have recognized the value of establishing a common aspiration for all graduates to serve as a “north star” for their district’s transformation efforts. 

However, developing a Portrait of a Graduate is just the first step in the journey to becoming a 21st century education system. I have observed three key strategies that districts should follow to ensure their vision of 21st century learning becomes a reality for all students. 

1. Root the Portrait of a Graduate process in your community. 
While the process of developing a Portrait of a Graduate will look different in each school system, the most important move for any school leader is to engage their community in that process from day one. Bringing together a broad array of stakeholders to co-create a Portrait of a Graduate can help build understanding and lasting support from the community that leads to sustainable impact for students.  

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, the school district organized a campaign that eventually resulted in 1,000 community members coming together at the local convention center to consider and adopt the district’s Portrait of a Graduate. Other school systems have engaged a community advisory group of key stakeholders in a months-long process to reach consensus on a Portrait of a Graduate. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia developed the district’s Portrait of a Graduate 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. Dysart Unified School District in Arizona followed a similar process in creating their Profile of a Career and College Ready Graduate.  

Designing a community engagement process that fits your local context and includes wide-ranging participation from the community is critical to garner the long-term support needed to implement real change in your district. 

2. Involve stakeholders who understand the 21st century workforce. 
A primary driver of the Portrait of a Graduate work is to transform the educational experience for all students, so they are prepared to meet the demands of a 21st century economy. With that in mind, it’s important to engage stakeholders in the development process who have a deep understanding of the workforce and what knowledge and skills students will need to fill the jobs of the future.

The best Portrait of a Graduate advisory groups have strong representation from the business community, including leaders from the local chamber of commerce, workforce development organizations, and HR directors from local organizations who can explain what they look for in hiring. Parents who are members of the 21st century workforce can also provide important insight for educators and others about what future jobs will require from our students. Finally, make sure to include student representation on your Portrait of a Graduate advisory groups. They bring a unique perspective that can help to anchor discussions in what is best for kids.  

3. Treat the Portrait of a Graduate as just the beginning of the journey. 
Working with your community to develop a Portrait of a Graduate is a significant accomplishment worth celebrating, but it’s also just the beginning of the process of becoming a 21st century education system. Don’t let your Portrait of a Graduate become just another poster hanging on the walls of your schools. It should serve as your “north star” leading the district on a continuous journey to transforming educational opportunities for all students.

EdLeader21’s network of more than 165 school districts are collaborating with one another to bring 21st century learning to life for all students. We have worked with our member districts to co-create rubrics and performance tasks as well as other tools to help educators teach and assess 21st century competencies. These are strategies that can create traction for your Portrait of a Graduate.  

If you are considering developing a Portrait of a 21st Century Graduate for your district, you are on the right path. Whatever you do, don’t skip over the essential task of engaging a broad group of community stakeholders in the process. When communities and districts co-create a shared Profile or Portrait of a Graduate—describing what students need to become lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century—there is real potential for collaboration and lasting impact. Visit our Gallery to learn from some of the districts pioneering this important work.

In October 2017, Battelle for Kids and EdLeader21 joined forces behind a shared goal that: By 2021, 21 percent of school systems across the U.S. are engaging with their communities to develop and implement a Portrait of a Graduate. We hope to effect a tipping point that creates positive momentum toward transforming educational opportunities for all students.

Contact us to learn how your school district or organization can get involved. 

Ken Kay is CEO of EdLeader21, a national network of Battelle for Kids. Connect with him on Twitter at @kenkay21.