This paper was authored by the Getting Smart team and features numerous friends and partners in the field. Much of the video content has been taken from our ongoing Getting Smart Town Halls, podcasts and more. It is also a part of our New Pathways campaign.
The production of this publication was made possible with generous support by American Student Assistance (ASA).
A “Portrait” framework helps leaders implement a new collective re-design vision. To facilitate and empower leaders in this transformative journey, we start with a comprehensive visioning and strategic process that revolves around five interconnected and dynamic portraits: the Portrait of a Learner, the Portrait of a System, the Portrait of a Leader, the Portrait of an Educator and a Self-Portrait. These interrelated and adaptable elements of the framework have both interconnected and discrete competencies. Done in an intentional order of Learner, System, Educator, Leader, then Self the resulting framework provides clear guidance and transparency to the redesign process.
The Portrait of a Graduate (also called Profile of a Learner) is a unique and locally tailored vision that outlines the competencies and transferable skills that support a learner’s long-term success. It serves as the guiding North Star for systemic transformation. This collective vision not only defines the essential knowledge, skills, and mindsets desired for students upon graduation but also rekindles engagement and enthusiasm among students, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders. It provides strategic direction for a thorough redesign of the overall educational experience, ensuring the growth, adaptability, and ultimate success of every learner in our ever-evolving world.
Once the Portrait of a Graduate is complete, the Portrait of a System elevates this vision beyond mere aspiration, underscoring the need for a deliberate focus and alignment throughout the entire school district. Collaborating closely with dedicated district leaders cultivates a strategic shift by establishing new conditions, processes, and practices that promote equitable and enduring 21st-century experiences for both educators and students alike. This alignment ensures seamless integration of the vision at every level of the educational ecosystem, fostering a cohesive and purposeful transformation. Districts and schools support these with codesigned learning models, curriculum frameworks, and instructional models.
The Portrait of an Educator articulates the competencies needed by educators to implement a high-quality learning model articulated in the Portrait of a System. The Portrait of an Educator framework guides the identification and design of essential tools, resources, and support systems, empowering educators to effectively deliver on the district’s new vision with passion and proficiency. It often includes a set of overarching Design Principles built on learning sciences that inform specific practices and approaches articulated within the Portrait of a System.
Fourth, a Portrait of a Leader describes the optimal competencies required by leaders within the system (both at the governance and administrative levels) to support educators who implement the learning model to help every student achieve the Portrait of a Graduate.
Finally, every learner should build an evolving Self-Portrait to self-reflect, set goals, and describe who they are and who they want to be.
Through this integrated approach, we pave the way for a transformative path that upholds the vision for education within a community, nurturing a generation of students equipped with the essential skills and mindsets to thrive personally and professionally. The intentional system-wide shift fosters an inclusive, forward-thinking, and learner-centered education, empowering our students to become future-ready leaders and active contributors to a flourishing society.
As school system leaders, our responsibility is to nurture the education and well-being of every child within our communities. To prepare students as lifelong learners and contributors, we must begin by engaging with our broader community to identify shared aspirations and address essential questions:
- What are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our community for its young people?
- In the face of a rapidly changing, complex world, what specific skills and mindsets do our children need to succeed?
- How can we design equitable learning experiences within our school systems, considering all relevant factors?
From these community conversations, a mission, vision, and set of values should emerge. Proceeding with the redesign process without a mission and vision in place increases the chances for divergent views later in the process. Shared values allow for common discourse, civility, and conversations when disagreements arise. Some examples are:
Uniquely tailored to each district yet globally relevant, the Portrait of a Graduate acts as the guiding North Star for systemic transformation. This collective vision defines the knowledge, skills, and mindsets desired for students upon graduation, reinvigorating and re-engaging students, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders. It provides strategic direction for redesigning the overall educational experience, ensuring every student’s growth and success.
Often, a Portrait of a Graduate will include a set of broad outcomes that is unpacked via competencies. These competencies sit at a larger grain size than standards. As districts build systems to implement the Portrait, the competencies can be integrated into the assessment systems of an organization.
By getting adults to embrace the idea that every person in the community is expected to meet the Portrait of a Graduate, more alignment is created. Adults can use the Portrait of a Learner, the Portrait of an Educator (which is often more pedagogical in nature) and Self-Portrait to holistically build competency.
We often see learner outcomes collected into three buckets: core, technical and transferable. Standards serve as a representation of Core Skills, CTE programs address Technical Skills, and most Portraits of Graduates articulate Transferable Skills (which are rarely implemented in practice). Often, standards will be addressed as a single element with a Portrait of a Graduate or addressed separately. A few critical things to keep in mind are:
- Make the profile accessible and clear for grade levels or grade bands.
- Co-design look fors and ensure they are more than just a checklist..
- Design reflective questions on process and invite teachers to self-reflect and assess their strengths and their needs for professional learning.
- Empower students to self-assess and capture evidence of their learning, growth, and next steps.
Ultimately, a coherent set of competencies could cover all of these distinct sets of skills and comprise the full Portrait of a Graduate. However, except in unusual cases, schools build separate sets of outcomes within each of these three areas.
Technical skills, also known as Industry-Recognized Skills, are well-described in the CTE Career Clusters and implemented in most U.S. high schools. Leading to Industry-Recognized Credentials (IRCs), proficiency in these competencies does not lead to a higher education degree but does provide specific skill validation for career pathways, improving hiring rates. Too frequently students take at least one CTE credit course, but due to other secondary school requirements, they do not have time to pursue the IRCs needed to earn the credential. To increase IRC completion, the introduction of shorter-duration high-relevance IRCs may help. Additionally, ensuring that a broad spectrum of CTE programs is available—especially in the field of computer science and other STEM disciplines—provides equitable access to lucrative careers in the future (a caveat exists due to the acceleration of AI-driven tools as a better approach to some STEM skills in the future such as coding). Appropriate staffing, reputation, access, and replication all pose challenges to this long-standing and well-funded credential program within the United States.
An emerging, but still scarce, set of technical skills exists in the Green Skills category. With a demonstrated increased need for jobs in the sustainable energy, food, and building sectors, schools can embed green skills pathways into Portraits.
Given the reported outcomes gaps around core skills between graduates, it makes sense to expand credentials to include these skills in addition to technical skills found in CTE programs. Of course, the current proxy is the high school or college diploma—a credential that presumably marks a student proficient in core skills. Competency-based assessment systems are vehicles through which K-12 and higher education systems can transition from course/letter grade/credit to skill/competency/credit.
As with standards right now, each state would determine its core competencies. States could shift requirements from course completion to competency completion. Modularizing courses would make it easier to describe learner skill attainment and target remediation (i.e., redo the competency, not the course). The XQ Math Badging initiative builds on this premise.
Just like the 16 career clusters in the technical CTE areas, core skills would focus on English language arts, mathematics (including data science, finance, and statistics), social studies (like C3’s strong set of civics competencies), science (NGSS already has a set of disciplinary core ideas, practices, and cross-cutting concepts wrapped up into a single standard—which could become a competency), arts, second language, etc.
All educators within the public sector connect standards to courses, and many districts report out standard proficiency within a course (especially in elementary school). This foundation acknowledges that course completion should be about proficiency in the content, while in practice it relegates assessment to traditional quizzes, tests, essays, etc. that do not articulate clear connections to standards. There are a few ways to remedy this.
Employers frequently report that new employees have a deficit of transferable skills, also known as applied or durable skills. Some states, districts, and schools have advanced their focus on ensuring that each graduate demonstrates proficiency in these types of skills. Non-governmental organizations have also described sets of durable skills (XQ Learner Outcomes, America Succeeds Durable Skills, and the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Skills). Community validation is important in these efforts to ensure the skills match the needs articulated by the community. Kansas City Rising and the DeBruce Foundation compiled a set of regional Essential Skills based on input from employers and educators. Indianapolis’ Job Ready Indy defined six regionally defined workplace readiness competencies and an associated curriculum. When a student who enrolls in this workplace readiness pathway demonstrates proficiency through the curriculum, they receive badges that count towards graduation requirements.
After deciding on competencies and skills, the resulting POG should be used as a north star to guide your strategic plan. Your POG needs to be visible and used to guide your strategic priorities and identify what is no longer needed. Design budgeting practices that make the POG a priority and review current reporting practices. Consider connected practices, a presentation of learning, digital credentialing, extended transcripts, and portfolio assessments.Aurora Institute, PanoramaEd Resource for Portrait of a Graduate, Nevada’s Portrait Process and Batelle for Kids offer resources on how to go about building the Portrait of a Graduate.
Aligning the entire system supports making the Portrait of a Graduate a tangible reality. Start by recognizing that every learning system is a dynamic and multifaceted organization comprised of interdependent parts working together to shape learning experiences for students. Navigating this layered complexity to bring about meaningful change includes articulating a set of Design Principles, a defined instructional learning model, shared agreements around use of data and reporting, an approach to instructional coaching, and assessment protocols. Design Principles are based on Learning Sciences and tangible instructional models and guide decision-making around the instructional or learning model. Using these aligned resources is the first step toward creating a Portrait of a System that can guide decision-making and the use of vital resources.
The journey towards defining a Portrait of a System begins with questions that spark meaningful conversations among educational stakeholders. These questions often dive into the hopes, dreams, and aspirations that the community holds for every student. This process demands a commitment to reshaping learning and ensuring equitable structures and practices within the school system. It challenges education leaders to envision and implement essential shifts that establish the conditions for equitable deeper learning outcomes for every student. At its heart, the Portrait of a Graduate illuminates the path toward educational transformation.
Each school system is unique and complex, however, purposeful alignment of each of these components is a great way to ensure that the vision becomes a reality for every student. Within the district’s strategic planning process, the Portrait of a System holds a pivotal role, in crafting a roadmap that delineates a well-defined journey from enrollment to graduation for every learner. Ultimately, the Portrait of a System is the compass directing the evolution of an education system—a transformation rooted in equity, student-centeredness, and adaptability to the demands of a rapidly changing world.
The Portrait of an Educator framework guides the identification and design of essential tools, resources, and support to empower educators to effectively implement a new vision for a system.
The Portrait of an Educator element articulates core competencies needed by educators working to implement the learning model within the Portrait of a System. The portrait should extend to all staff in appropriate ways, not just teaching staff. Every adult in the system has a responsibility to help students meet the expectations described in the Portrait of a Graduate. An educator’s competence and dedication can shape the overall learning experience for every student. By purposefully integrating rigorous academic content with 21st-century skills, mindsets, and literacies, educators play a pivotal role in bringing the vision to life
A professional learning system aligned with desired outcomes to validate what is working and support new areas of growth and expectations is critical. This is most effective with representation from educators who are fluent in working with learners of varying levels and backgrounds. Consider the following to build the Portrait of an Educator.
- Engage with a diverse set of teachers to design educator competencies that support the learning model that will help achieve the graduate profile.
- Create personalized learning pathways with and for teachers to understand where they are and learn based on their needs, context, and goals. Consider micro-credentialing teachers as they develop competency in desired areas.
- Consider hiring instructional coaches that are either trained or will be trained to coach, advise and support educators.
- Ensure professional learning time that is consistent and agile to respond to the needs of the system as it grows. This requires additional time that is embedded into the system for teachers to meet, share, collaborate and grow their practice.
- The system could invest in learning communities across their system for leaders, related providers, paraprofessionals, and other related staff members who serve student learning.
- After the Portrait of an Educator has been determined, embed the connected competencies into the Human Resources practices and eventually evaluation.
As a resource to get started, Batelle for Kids created the My Sketch Tool to build Portraits of an Educator.
Leadership matters as much as educator initiative during school redesign efforts. When a community clearly articulates the competencies needed to ensure that every learner reaches the outcomes presented in the Portrait of a Graduate, the community feels supported and the leader has a clear direction. This element of the framework often gets neglected given that the leader is busy doing the work described in other steps of this process.
A Portrait of a Leader serves as a blueprint, outlining the essential competencies and qualities necessary for leaders across different levels of the educational ecosystem. Beyond establishing clear expectations, this portrait offers guidance for navigating the complex landscape of modern education. In this context, leadership goes beyond conventional management traits. The Portrait of a Leader empowers educational leaders to effectively inspire, guide and empower their teams, fostering a culture of innovation, adaptability, and continuous improvement. It equips leaders to champion and steer the roadmap for systemic change, ultimately leading to more equitable, learner-centered, and forward thinking educational environments.
Helpful traits that tend to show up in definitions of transformative leadership:
Visionary Leadership: Leaders have a clear and compelling vision for the future of education—a vision that aligns with the aspirations of the community and embodies the essence of the Portrait of a Graduate. This collective vision guides the system’s transformation and inspires stakeholders.
Commitment to Equity: A commitment to equity is at the core of educational transformation. Leaders work tirelessly to eliminate disparities in access and outcomes, ensuring that every student has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances.
Collaborative & Inclusive: Transformation is a collective endeavor that requires collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including students, educators, administrators, families, and community members. Leaders foster a culture of inclusivity, valuing input from all perspectives and building consensus around the shared vision.
Data-Informed Decision Making: Leaders leverage data and evidence to inform their decisions, measure progress, and make necessary adjustments. Data-driven insights help ensure that initiatives are effective and aligned with the desired outcomes.
Adaptable/Innovative: The educational landscape is ever-changing, and leaders are adaptable and open to innovation. They encourage experimentation and are willing to take calculated risks to drive meaningful change and continuously improve the system.
Strategic (planning): Transformation requires a well-defined strategy that aligns all aspects of the system with the vision. Leaders are skilled in strategic planning, setting clear goals, and establishing a roadmap for implementation.
Communicative: Effective communication is essential for rallying stakeholders around the vision, sharing progress, and addressing concerns. Leaders are adept at conveying their ideas and listening actively to the voices of others.
Determined: Transforming an educational system is a long-term endeavor filled with challenges and setbacks. Leaders exhibit resilience and determination, persevering in the face of obstacles and maintaining a steadfast commitment to the vision.
Empowers Others: Effective leaders empower educators, students, and community members to take ownership of the transformation process. They provide support, resources, and professional development opportunities to help others contribute to the collective goals.
Create Transparency. Leaders are transparent in recognizing and celebrating milestones and successes along the transformation journey. This is vital for inclusion, accountability and maintaining motivation. Leaders acknowledge and honor the efforts and achievements of all stakeholders.
Centering the entire system is understanding self. The “Self-Portrait” process provides opportunities for learners to articulate goal-setting, strength evaluations, description of learning preferences, well-being, hope, social network, etc. While technology solutions like Thrively, Unrulr, and AYO allow learners to capture their portraits, simple systems can be created to capture the Self-Portrait portfolio over time using journaling, documents or websites.
As system leaders align these five different portraits, it can be overwhelming to consider the multitude of shifts required. To continue growing and evolving, it is crucial to acknowledge what is working and build from there. It’s important to define an aligned assessment platform that supports growth and deeper learning. This will lead to cleaner data collection protocols.
Consider these key actionable activities to ensure longevity in the process.
- Build clear and transparent metrics of success within the initiative. Share these widely with the community.
- Celebrate progress, growth, and successes within your team and beyond.
- Recognize systems and teachers who are open to sharing their practices, receiving feedback, and collaborating. This commitment is how networks are formed, allowing us all to learn and grow together.
- Embrace the transformation, continue learning, and celebrate each step of the journey as you create and implement a full “Systems” Framework for your site.
- Create student, educator, and community surveys that gather input on experiences aligned with your POG.
- Create expectations for student learning exhibitions and demonstrations of learning to show their growth in the desired outcomes. This is true for all learners.
- Ensure that the report cards or other reporting mechanisms include metrics that align with your POG in addition to grades or standards reporting. This may require you to seek out other learning management tools to meet this need.
- Set goals and track leading measures such as student progress, school attendance, discipline referrals, and enrollment.
- Design aligned performance assessments that will help build an assessment model.