Redefining Student Success with the Portrait of a Graduate

Jul 09, 2024
Portrait of a graduate

Schools and districts across the country are redefining student success as they plan for the future. What skills should a student have by the time they graduate high school? How can schools adequately support students for an ever-changing world?

There’s a notable trend across America where states are embracing “portrait of a graduate” initiatives, reshaping what it means to educate and prepare students for civic, social, and economic success.  

What is a Portrait of a Graduate? 

While math, literacy, and mastering other academic subjects remains important for educators, “portrait of a graduate” in practice is more than just earning these credits for a diploma. It’s about instilling durable skills within all students and setting them up for success, whether they choose employment, post-secondary education, or military enlistment after graduation. 

What are durable skills? 

Durable skills, also known as soft skills, encompasses a wide variety of abilities that are meant to remain relevant and valuable over time. They are a mix of character skills and skills that help students use what they know. 

Competencies include, but are not limited to: 

  • Communication (Written and Verbal)
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience  
  • Empathy
  • Problem Solving
  • Creativity
  • Growth Mindset
  • Leadership
  • Culturally Sensitive 

Why are Portrait of a Graduate Initiatives Important?

There are several challenges that the workforce of the future will face. Major threats include job displacement from automation and artificial intelligence, the rise of the gig economy which lack benefits and security of traditional employment, job outsourcing and increased competition due to globalization, climate change, and post-pandemic related health crises. 

States that are implementing “Portrait of a Graduate” legislation are concerned that traditional classroom curricula are not enough to give students the skills needed to overcome these challenges. 

Critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity can take students further in a rapidly changing world than rote learning and memorization. High reliance on standardized testing doesn’t consider emotional intelligence and practical application of knowledge. Educators also need to show real-world applications of the subjects they teach, or else they risk losing student engagement in the classroom.

Portrait of a Graduate Initiatives in Action 

States and districts around the nation are in various stages of implementing their Portrait of a Graduate initiatives. Here is a glimpse of how different regions are tailoring their approaches to equip students with skills they need for future success.  

Indiana: Indiana Graduates Prepared to Succeed (Indiana GPS) expects schools to instill academic mastery, career and postsecondary readiness through credentials and experiences, communication, collaboration, work ethic, and civic, financial, and digital literacy in all students. They developed a live performance dashboard that quantifies students' skill-building and tracks school progress and performance within the state.

Nevada: The Portrait of a Nevada Learner took about two years to develop. In the end, Nevadans decided that collaboration, relationships, communication, empowerment, resilience, and empathy were the skills and mindsets that their learners need. Nevada’s pilot program is ongoing as they continue to work towards integrating their learnings into policy and practice.  

NOLA Public Schools: New Orleans’ school district officially launched their Portrait of a Graduate Guidebook in the prior school year, with the goal of making sure students leave as leaders, analytical thinkers, healthy humans, solution seekers, continuous learners, and global citizens. The comprehensive document guides implementation within public schools through events, social media, celebrating student milestones, and more. 

North Carolina: The state’s Portrait of a Graduate initiative ladders up to Operation Polaris, a larger, strategic plan that is meant “to optimize systems and introduce policies that drive the best possible outcomes for students in North Carolina public schools and public charter schools”. 

In addition to academic success, students should gain the ability to adapt, collaborate, communicate, think critically, show empathy, learn, and take personal responsibility. The Department of Public Instruction provided resources to districts in the prior school year, allowing schools and teachers to begin implementing the initiative in the classroom. 

Career-Connected Learning in the Classroom 

Schools that prioritize cultivating durable skills and expand their career-connected learning offerings are hoping to see the following impact on students: 

Better Student Engagement: Incorporating real-world applications and practical skills into school curriculum makes learning more relevant for students, while also increasing student motivation and  reducing chronic absenteeism.

Improved Workforce Readiness: Many employers report new graduates lack the skills needed to meet today’s job requirements. Robust CTE programs can solve this by allowing students to gain industry-specific skills in the classroom and hands-on experience through internships, apprenticeships, and semester-long projects with local businesses.  

Increased Equity and Access: Focusing on durable skills and CTE offerings can help address educational inequities by providing every student with access to valuable skills and career opportunities, supporting diverse pathways to success. 

Preparing Students for the Future of Work 

As more states develop and implement their Portrait of a Graduate initiatives, it becomes increasingly important for districts to prioritize professional development for their staff. Educators need to be well-equipped to translate these visionary plans into everyday classroom experiences.  

This could include: 

  • Training teachers on integrating durable skills into their courses 
  • The use of new pedagogical methods that emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving 
  • Developing strategies that engage students through real-world applications 

Districts and schools can also conduct a thorough needs analysis by evaluating the current state of their CTE programs, understanding its constraints and limitations, and finding areas for improvement. By leveraging data and feedback from various stakeholders, schools can develop targeted strategies to enhance their CTE offerings.

Investing in ongoing evaluation and adjustment of CTE programs is also important. As the job market evolves and new challenges emerge, educators must remain agile and responsive to ensure their programs remain relevant and effective. Regular assessments, including feedback from students and employers, can help educators refine their approaches. 

The success of Portrait of a Graduate initiatives depends on a collaborative effort between teachers, administrators, students, parents, and community partners. By fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement, combined with a focus on skills and competencies that drive future success, schools can ensure their students are not only prepared for the workforce but can be adaptable, resilient, and innovative contributors to society. 

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