The Problem of the Portrait

One of the recent trends in schools has been the creation of a “portrait of a graduate.” This is a process through which a school district, with input from students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members, defines the characteristics we want our students to leave us with.

Usually, an outside consultant is brought in to help the school through this process. The consultant helps brainstorm ideas, summarize and synthesize the thoughts of all of the stakeholder groups, and bring them together in a way that builds consensus. It’s a great opportunity for people who don’t normally interact to come together and discuss some fundamental questions about the purpose of school. It’s powerful work, and I have enjoyed the conversations every time I’ve been involved.

Kindergarten Graduation, from Moyerphotos on Flickr.

At the end of all this, the school has a list of core competencies that they want their students to achieve. They tend to vary depending on the community, but most of them include things like critical thinking or problem solving, effective communication skills, experience working together with diverse, passionate people, and the ability to adapt and persevere in the face of obstacles. Most schools end up with 4-8 of these competencies. The two portrait projects I’ve worked on most recently are here and here.

If these look familiar, it might be because we called them “21st century skills” a generation ago. Back then, we emphasized critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Those all show up in the modern portraits. Now that we’re in the third decade of the 21st century, there’s a good chance many of our students will live to see the 22nd century. So we need a different word for them, but they’re still the same ideas.

These things don’t show up on the state achievement tests. They’re not on the ACT. They’re not used in international rankings of schools. They’re just things that we, as members of the school community, think are important. And they are important. For most of our students, learning to effectively communicate an idea in a compelling and succinct way is much more valuable than balancing chemical equations. Respecting the differences in our cultures and maintaining pluralism as an ideal helps us form a more perfect union much better than memorizing the troop movements at Gettysburg. Solving problems we’ve never seen before and creating something new from diverse elements is more useful than the law of cosines. The elements of the portrait of a graduate are probably the most important things we teach, once we move beyond basic literacy. That’s why we create compelling graphics and make posters and plaques and lapel pins to remind us about them.

But what comes next?

They’re not in the curriculum. They’re not on the report card. They’re not on the tests. There is no incentive for doing them, and there’s no penalty for not doing them. More than that, though, we don’t have good ways to measure them.

One of the other big trends in schools these days is data-driven decision making. We use data to inform decisions, allocate resources, and concentrate efforts. If we’re struggling in 7th grade math, we see that in the test results and can focus our efforts on professional development, intervention strategies, and teaching resources to improve 7th grade math. If a particular subgroup is not performing well, we can allocate resources to help that group. If we’re knocking the ball out of the park in 3rd grade reading, maybe we don’t need to focus so much on improving in that area. Academically, we’re pretty good at measuring achievement, and we’re getting better about using the data that we have to help us get better.

But with the portrait competencies, it’s very difficult to measure them. How do you know if a student in 8th grade is more innovative than he was in 5th grade? How do you measure things like empathy and confidence? Those are really tough to quantify. There’s no multiple choice test for that.

We have to be careful when we set goals. We really like measurable, quantifiable outcomes because it’s easy to show that we’ve done them. “In the next 3 years, we will increase the average 8th grade science scores by 10%.” We can measure that. We know if we’ve met the goal. And because it’s easy to measure, we’re more likely to adopt that as a goal. “This year, our students will skillfully use critical thinking to bring creative solutions to problems.” Did we do that? How many kids achieved a minimum level of competency in that goal? What does “minimum level of competency” even mean?

As we grow into our portraits of graduates, we need to make sure that we leave room to do them. We have to be more proactive about emphasizing them, more careful about finding new ways to measure (or at least demonstrate) them, and more flexible about how we articulate our goals. Without that, they’re just pretty posters that paint a portrait of what we would like to be, without a path to get there.