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Report looks at the future of ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ in North Carolina and beyond

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In fall 2022, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt unveiled the “Portrait of a Graduate” — highlighting seven skills the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) hoped public schools across North Carolina would incorporate into day-to-day learning.

Those durable skills — adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, learner’s mindset, and personal responsibility — were whittled down from a list of more than 50 from a group of 1,200 stakeholders across the state.

Nearly two and a half years later, DPI is still working to ensure that North Carolina students are “well equipped for the broadest range of postsecondary opportunities, be it college, career, or military.” Earlier this week, DPI released the first set of Portrait of a Graduate (POG) K-12 “performance tasks,” a list of activities that combines durable skills with academics.

Last week, Truitt joined a national webinar, hosted by EducationWeek and national nonprofit Battelle for Kids, to discuss the future of the POG framework.

“We’re really hoping that we’re on the road to better preparing our state’s 1.5 million students to become employed, enrolled, or enlisted,” Truitt said.

Over the last decade, national nonprofit Battelle for Kids has partnered with more than 135 school districts to create a POG framework, along with three states, according to a new report from Battelle.

Additional schools and states have adopted a similar framework on their own, with at least 17 states adopting POG as of fall 2023.

Locally developed and globally positioned, a school system’s Portrait of a Graduate is developed with the community to identify the durable skills students need for success in this rapidly changing, complex world. It is the community’s collective, unifying vision for every student.

Excerpt from Batelle’s Portrait of a Graduate report

The POG helps “set a vision for what tomorrow’s high school graduates need to be successful,” Battelle President and CEO Michael Duncan said during the webinar.

“After more than two decades of high stakes standardized testing, significant learning gaps remain and workforce skills gaps grow larger every day,” said Duncan, who previously served 18 years as a district superintendent in Georgia. “Understanding how much students know is no longer enough. The time has come for us to think about what students can do with what they know.”

The webinar explored the value of the POG framework, importance of durable skills, results from participating schools and districts, and how to continue empowering students to meet challenges.

Screenshot from June 11 Portrait of a Graduate Webinar

Value and impact of Portrait of a Graduate

The idea for POG started in the early 2000s, according to the report, when “it became clear that students needed bold leadership from U.S. policymakers and local education institutions.”

In 2011, the EdLeader21 Network was launched to connect education leaders working to implement the POG in their local contexts. In 2017, EdLeader21 launched a national campaign for POG, and partnered with Battelle for Kids to further scale the movement.

“School districts empowered by the Portrait of a Graduate are now places where education is not just imparted but discovered, where students learn to adapt to their surroundings and carve out paths that are uniquely their own,” the report says.

But what exactly is the POG?

According to Colon Lewis, webinar panelist and chief learning officer at Battelle for Kids, the POG is a “community’s shared vision of what a future-ready, deeper-learning experience looks like for every student. It serves as a North Star for systems transformation, and through the Portrait of a Graduate design process, educators, students, leaders, elected officials, community members, and families work together… to agree upon the skills, competencies, and mindsets they feel are most important for the students within their local community.”

Lewis, who previously worked as a teacher and administrator, said the landscape of our workforce is rapidly shifting.

Today, seven of the 10 most requested skills in job postings are durable skills, according to the webinar presentation. At the same time, roughly 60% of employers complain about a lack of preparation, even for entry-level jobs.

“We need to do a better job of preparing graduates to meet the needs of employers. And at the same time, we need to prepare students for occupations that may not even exist yet,” Lewis said. “…One critical role of the portrait is to help prepare students to enter the workforce with those durable skills that will empower them to be successful employees or entrepreneurs, no matter the pathway they take to get there following graduation.”

Screenshot from Battelle’s report

In North Carolina, Truitt said she decided to partner with Battelle as part of DPI’s effort to move away from the narrative that a four-year college degree after high school is for everyone.

DPI’s approach was to create a statewide “blueprint” she said, that districts could then implement locally. After unveiling the state’s seven durable skills, the second phase of work involved creating rubrics for teachers to use to implement and identify the skills in the classroom.

The third phase involved working with 30 different districts and charter schools to create lesson plans with “performance tasks” related to each skill. DPI published the first set of those tasks earlier this week.

“The emphasis is to ensure that students can engage, explore, and experience the durable skills in action,” Truitt said.

Truitt said POG work goes hand in hand with DPI’s efforts to update the state’s accountability model. Currently, school grades are based on each school’s achievement score, weighted 80%, and on students’ academic growth, weighted 20%. Education leaders say that formula does not capture the full picture of the work happening in the state’s public schools.

House Bill 1057, School Performance Grade Pilot, filed by Republicans this session, would direct DPI to develop criteria “for a new school performance grade metric and method.” Under the bill, a pilot for the new system would launch for a few schools during the 2024-25 school year. By 2025-26, DPI would expand the model to all schools.

“We are providing a more comprehensive picture to both parents and policymakers about what student success means,” Truitt said. “For me, this has always been about redefining what students success and school quality look like.”

What are durable skills?

According to America Succeeds, durable skills are competencies we use to share what we know, such as critical thinking, collaboration, or communication, as well as character skills like fortitude and leadership. By better integrating these into education pathways, the power and promise of every student finding happiness and success after graduation can better be realized.

Excerpt from Batelle’s Portrait of a Graduate report

As mentioned above, in North Carolina, the seven durable skills of the POG are adaptability, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, empathy, learner’s mindset, and personal responsibility.

Initially, Truitt said she was a little surprised to see that state stakeholders agreed upon empathy as one of the most important skills to teach students.

“But the more I dug into this, the more I was convinced that, gosh, in the day and age that we’re living in, this is needed more than ever,” she said.

Screenshot from June 11 Portrait of a Graduate Webinar

Bob Nelson, webinar panelist and retired superintendent and advisor from Fresno Unified School District in California, said the POG is critical to conversations about learning and achievement gaps.

“It’s critical that students in poverty and students from diverse backgrounds, urban backgrounds, have the opportunity to have 21st century ways of demonstrating what it is that they know,” Nelson said. “…It’s generally the case that students of privilege have more opportunity to demonstrate what they know in a variety of ways than youths in an urban setting.”

During a June 5 EducationWeek webinar, North Carolina’s Donnell Cannon spoke about his school’s experience implementing a POG framework.

Cannon, executive director of Maureen Joy Charter School, said the school approached the work with a desire to create “an expansive definition of success.” 

Maureen Joy’s “Portrait of a Learner” focuses on developing compassionate, curious, confident communicator, critically conscious, empowered, and agile learners. The ultimate goal is to build a new model of school that centers equity and liberation.

“The inequitable outcomes that we’re experiencing ubiquitously are direct results of the flaws in our school system, and not the inherent fault of our young people,” said Cannon, who also serves on EdNC’s board of directors.

“We wanted to approach how we thought about bold new learning experiences for young people by centering it within a shared North Star,” he said. “To create this future filled with possibility and equity, where every young person gets to thrive in their own context, and toward their their ambitions.”

Moving forward

As schools and districts implement the POG in their contexts, Nelson said it’s crucial to look for anchor institutions in the community to partner with — including churches, nonprofits, businesses, and more.

Nelson said he sees a lot of potential for schools to expand partnerships with higher education institutions in particular.

“Your community is full of caring people who care about what happens to the kids in their sphere,” he said. “And they’re gonna want to play a part in this.”

At the same time, Nelson said it’s crucial that your internal teams believe in what you’re doing first.

In North Carolina, Truitt said this was especially important given that DPI doesn’t have the authority to make districts adopt POG.

“Making this locally driven by educators has been the key to our success,” she said.

Battelle’s report also highlights the following lessons:

  • POG is only the start of the work. “The Portrait is a powerful framework for a unified community vision, but lasting change requires a systemwide sustained effort and commitment from all stakeholders,” the report says.
  • Engaging students and educators in the work is imperative.
  • Durable skills help create common ground across diverse stakeholder groups and backgrounds.
  • Community engagement and transparent communication are key to success.
  • POG aligns education with workforce needs. This helps “prepare students for diverse postsecondary pathways,” the report says.
  • Building sustainable momentum is crucial to long-term success. “Strong leadership, consistent practice, and integration of the Portrait into all aspects of the school district drive momentum and ensure long-term sustainability,” the report says.

As workforce and education landscapes continue to shift, Duncan said that at its best, POG can unify stakeholders across various lines of difference.

“When done well, what we see is that it brings communities together over a common shared vision for learning for their young people,” he said. “That this isn’t right, this isn’t left, it’s just Right with a capital R — it’s the right thing for kids. And so it’s just a very powerful opportunity to bring the community together over something aspirational, and then the hard work comes of making it happen.”

You can learn more about the report on Battelle for Kid’s website.

Hannah Vinueza McClellan

Hannah McClellan is EducationNC’s senior reporter and covers education news and policy, and faith.