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Nearly two years of coping with the serious disruptions created by the Covid-19 pandemic has put a bright light on both the importance of our public school system and its shortcomings. The crisis has also created a wider willingness — among educators, community members and families — to admit that schools as we know them are not serving the needs of today’s students or tomorrow’s world.
As Devin Vodicka, former superintendent of Vista Unified and CEO of Learner-Centered Collaborative, said in a recent blog: “The new purpose of schooling needs to be fostering agency, collaboration, and real-world problem solving … to ensure students can think critically and creatively, collaborate effectively with others, apply skills and knowledge to solving real problems, and find meaningful ways to contribute to the world.”
The work required to transform schools around this new purpose can be difficult, given how tradition-bound our education system is. In recent years, major reports and many education experts recommend that schools and communities come together to adopt a graduate profile, which defines the skills and knowledge students should have when they leave school, to create agreement about the changes that are needed.
According to an American Institutes of Research report published in 2014, “Overview: State Definitions of College & Career Readiness,” 36 states had defined “college and career readiness.” In recent years, at least a dozen states have gone further to adopt a statewide graduate profile. California was not among them.
Here instead, several dozen local school districts (as well as some charter schools and county offices) have worked with their communities to create their own graduate profile (or portrait of a graduate).
While every district’s graduate profile is somewhat different, the majority are a succinct one-pager and include some combination of these student learning outcomes:
- Academic preparation and content mastery.
- 21st-century skills such as collaboration and teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, and communication.
- Social-emotional learning outcomes such as self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, growth mindset, etc.
- Civic engagement such as contributing to the local community.
These districts are finding that they can use their consensus about outcome goals for graduates to justify spending the time and effort to experiment with fundamental changes in educational practices. The school districts and practice partners that are part of the Scaling Student Success network provide some examples of what those changes can look like.
In 2018, Sonoma County Office of Education and the Sonoma Career Technical Education Foundation partnered to create a countywide profile of a Sonoma graduate. YouthTruth then surveyed 30,000 students in 56 schools across 10 Sonoma County districts to assess the degree to which local schools were creating conditions for students to be successful across the multiple dimensions of social-emotional learning included in the profile — such as curiosity, communication, empathy and initiative. Over the next three years they plan to monitor changes that occur in response to classroom, schoolwide, districtwide and communitywide interventions aligned with the aspirations identified in their graduate profiles.
Other districts are expanding the use of relevant, student-centered learning experiences such as project-based, civic and work-based learning. For example, Anaheim Union High School District promotes student engagement with community groups that can offer hands-on civic learning experiences. About 2,000 district students last year earned the State Seal of Civic Engagement.
The Magnolia Agriscience Community Center, an urban farm initiative in the district, involves students and teachers across five schools in transforming a local food desert to a food, health care and civic engagement oasis, in the process learning about data analytics and policy advocacy.
Other districts are implementing systems of performance assessment that provide new ways for students to demonstrate the graduate profile competencies.
For example, San Francisco Unified School District is piloting teacher toolkits that offer guidelines and resources to support student-led conferences, portfolio defenses and capstone projects in fifth, eighth and 12th grades, with plans to expand the pilot to other grades and across the district in the coming years. This is one of several instructional strategies the district is undertaking around the vision articulated in the San Franscisco Unified graduate profile.
In the summer of 2021, Davis Joint Unified School District re-imagined its summer programs to better align with existing district priorities like whole-child learning and their graduate profile. Enriching, in-person summer experiences focused on creativity, critical thinking, arts, play and movement. The programs were intentionally designed to energize students, make learning more meaningful and allow students to explore graduate profile skills directly.
These districts, and many others throughout California, are changing practices to improve the student experience. By pursuing the kinds of research-based practices described above, they are building student agency, validating young people’s place in the world and giving them a sense of purpose. The districts are also committed to measuring their progress. Most have embedded their graduate profile outcomes into their annual Local Control and Accountability Plan, with the intent of holding themselves accountable for ensuring that each and every student has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate the competencies articulated on the graduate profile.
Roman Stearns is the founder and executive director of Scaling Student Success, a California partnership dedicated to educating the whole child. Mary Perry is an independent education consultant and was deputy director of EdSource until 2011.
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