Portrait of a Graduate: Is It Really Driving Educational Change?

February 2, 2024

Over the past several years, I’ve seen numerous schools and districts embrace the Portrait of a Graduate initiative. I’ve even had the privilege of assisting a few in this transformative process. Through this journey, I’ve witnessed energetic conversations centered on what we desire for all students: the knowledge and abilities needed to navigate fulfilling lives in our ever-changing world. The promise of the Portrait of a Graduate as a catalyst for change has been truly heartening.

The Why Behind the Portrait of a Graduate

At its essence, developing a Portrait of a Graduate is about setting a unified vision for what education can and should be. It acts as a north star, guiding us toward a shared goal for every student’s success. This concept might seem straightforward—identify the skills, competencies, and attributes our students need, and voila, we’re equipped to prepare them for a bright future.

Curiosity drove me to conduct some informal research, examining both public districts and private schools’ websites to gauge the adoption of this concept nationwide. Remarkably, at least 22 states have developed a statewide Portrait of a Graduate, with numerous district websites across all regions showcasing their commitment. Despite slight variations, the crux of these portraits consistently highlights the 4 Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.

This sounds promising, right? If the Portrait of a Graduate is being realized, we should expect to see the 4Cs integrated into every facet of education.

The Paradox of Our Educational Values

However, a deeper examination of our educational systems and practices reveals a disconnect between these celebrated ideals and the reality:

  • Collaboration is lauded in theory, yet we seldom assess students on their collaborative abilities, often viewing discussions with peers as cheating.
  • Communication is deemed essential, but classrooms remain dominated by teacher lectures, limiting students’ opportunities for genuine expression and idea exchange.
  • Critical Thinking is proclaimed as a learning cornerstone, yet our assessments frequently rely on surface-level questions.
  • Creativity is valued in name, but the inclusion of projects that foster innovation and embrace failure is rare.

Moreover, during a recent school visit, I discovered that despite adopting a Portrait of a Graduate emphasizing collaboration, teachers often worked in isolation. This highlighted a pressing need for systemic change to fully embody the Portrait of a Graduate principles.

The Real Deal with Portrait of a Graduate

In many schools, albeit not all, a pattern emerges that paints a somewhat ironic picture. Despite the widespread adoption of Portrait of a Graduate frameworks, a glaring gap persists between our proclaimed values and our actual practices. This discrepancy prompts us to question: if we’re not prepared to revolutionize our instructional methods, policies, and structures to authentically reflect these values, what’s the point?

As John Dewey aptly noted, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Likewise, the 4Cs are not merely goals for our graduates; they embody the essence of learning at every educational stage. For this vision to materialize, these competencies must be evident not just in our students but within our educators, our curriculum, and every aspect of our educational districts. Otherwise, we must concede that we’ve merely created an aspirational poster.

Your Thoughts and the Path Forward

I’m eager to hear your perspectives. Have you observed effective implementations of the Portrait of a Graduate? Are you grappling with discrepancies in your own educational settings? I’d love to hear what’s working so far. And if you’re seeking guidance in aligning your educational aspirations with practice, I’m here to assist. Together, we can ensure our educational practices truly reflect the values we champion.


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Easy ways any educator can lead the shift to mastery learning

February 18, 2022

Leading from where you are


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead

During a series of recent workshops on mastery learning, I had the opportunity to engage with educators from all levels who shared a curiosity and enthusiasm about mastery learning. At the conclusion of the first sessions, I was struck by two commonly asked questions:

  1.  If we know mastery is the right thing to do,  why aren’t we doing it?
  2.  Who is responsible for making it happen?

Here’s my answer: we (collectively) aren’t doing it, because we (individually) aren’t leading the charge.

Instead, WE are waiting…

  • For another school or district to show us the way.
  • For our colleagues, principal, superintendent, school committee, state department of ed to grant permission.
  • For colleges to embrace different ways of grading.
  • For parents to be comfortable with change

And so on, and so on. 

But students can’t wait.  More than 50 years ago, Benjamin Bloom showed us that virtually all students can learn at high levels if we educators vary instruction and time (Guskey, 2015).  Since then, others, including Sal Khan of Khan Academy, have given us quantitative proof that the approach allows students to fill in gaps and then soar alongside or above their peers.  

And still, we wait.

And as we do, we watch as students fall behind, fail, and become disengaged.  We watch as other students remain bored, tied to a pacing guide that refuses to allow them to expand their learning and follow their passions.

It’s time to stop waiting and start doing.  Regardless of your role, you can implement facets of mastery learning and, in turn, influence greater changes. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Steven Covey explained that proactive people focus on what they can control.  By doing so, they expand their circle of influence.  Whatever your role, you can focus on your area of control. As you do, you see your influence grow.  

When I shared this in the workshops, a participant said, “Lori, sounds like you’re advocating a grassroots movement.” And so I am.  

Yes, state boards of education, school committees, universities, and others need to come on board.  It can be frustrating to be the only teacher in your school, or principal in your district, or superintendent in your region who is trying to make this shift.  There are numerous interconnected practices, policies, and structures that must be adapted to make this work for all students.  

Nonetheless, those of us who are curious and courageous can start where we are.  Here are some examples:

  • If I am a Teacher, I can control  Allow Retakes and Redos which may influence other teachers to try it, students to advocate for them, parents to buzz about how much their students are learning.
  • If I am a curriculum leader, I can begin the next round of curriculum revisions with professional development and support for establishing power standards and proficiency scales.  Teachers will then see how those standards anchor student learning and teacher conversations and be prepared to continue the practice in other subject areas.
  • If I am a principal, I can cultivate curiosity and conversation about mastery learning during regular staff meetings and establishing exploratory subcommittees. At least some teachers will be motivated to try something new with their students and share their experiences with colleagues. 
  • If I am a superintendent/district leader, I can provide time and support for professional development. I can promote risk-taking and vulnerability.  Teachers will then know they have the freedom to try new approaches.

This is not easy work and it is not easy to implement on one’s own.  I think you’ll find, though, that as you get started, you will find more and more like-minded colleagues and you will help influence others’ thinking.  Imagine what we will create together if we all just start right now. 


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3 ways to invite parents inside the black box of education

November 16, 2020

Three ways to invite parents inside the black box of education - Lori McEwen Educational ConsultantIn 2013, Cuban and Tyack wrote Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education. In the book, they assert that even significant educational policy changes have largely left classroom practices untouched.

Few educators would argue with that thesis. Part of the issue is that the practice of teaching is largely a solitary one. Even schools that have embraced collaborative practices such as Professional Learning Communities or Instructional Rounds still have rooms of 1 teacher to 25 students, with doors that shut out the rest of the world.

Enter Covid and the move to remote learning, however, and suddenly the doors were opened wide. In this case, though, it wasn’t other teachers peering in, but parents and caregivers.  And, as we know, that didn’t always go so well.  Parents were often frustrated by unfamiliar material and teaching practices and felt both overwhelmed and helpless.  Perhaps partly as a result of this, we saw a push from parents to get their children back in school as fully and quickly as possible.  One almost gets the sense that parents were thinking–”I don’t care what you do with them all day, just don’t make me do it.”

This is unfortunate and represents a consistently missed opportunity.  Of course, we should not expect parents to take on the role of teacher, but we’ve also done a disservice over the years by keeping instructional practices inside a black box–so much so that when it was forced open, many parents had a tough time deciphering the contents.

So what can we do to promote greater transparency (and with that, greater student engagement–the focus of an upcoming post).

Here are a few steps:

1. Every single course has a “course overview” to be shared with parents at the beginning of the year and referenced frequently.

As I’ve written in earlier posts, if we want to build student ownership of learning, school should be a series of surprises. Instead, we can let students know what they will learn, why they will learn it and how they might demonstrate their learning.  A Course Overview does this by listing the power standards for each course and describing the types of typical learning activities and assessments to be used in the course.  From there, teachers can invite student participation in co-creating the learning, but the overview provides a clear and coherent frame for the course.

Similarly, parents can review the overview and ask questions about it during discussions (perhaps during virtual open houses and/or during the events described below).

2. Schools run frequent, interactive “curriculum” or “teaching and learning” events for parents.

Because everyone went to school, most assume that they understand what’s happening. But both content and pedagogy have changed over time.   Math, in particular, is likely to be unfamiliar to many parents.

Not only does the Algebra course my son took in 2015 look very different from the Algebra I struggled through in 1984, but elementary math instruction has also changed considerably. For one thing, there is considerably more focus, from an early age, on real world problem-solving that goes beyond the word problems of yore. There’s also a recognition that we need to allow students to engage in “productive struggle” in order to deeply engage with mathematics.

But parent comments like  “The teacher doesn’t teach! My kids tell me they have to do all the work” tell me that we haven’t shared with parents the why behind any pedagogical changes.

We could use in-person or online “teaching and learning” events to showcase new approaches, perhaps using a shared text like Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, for example. Parents, teachers and students could collaborate on rich problems together, gaining a mutual appreciation for new ways of learning.

3. Institute (student-led) digital conferences in place of the traditional parent/teacher conferences.

Covid has forced us to embrace new ways of communicating, and the move to online conferences might be one of the best changes worth sustaining.  Rather than rushed 20 minute sessions with adults sitting in student desks, we can move to a more relaxed online setting that allows for greater flexibility for teachers and for working parents.

Using the course overview and student artifacts as a guide, parents and teacher can engage in a deep discussion about the child’s strengths and opportunity areas.  If possible, having the student lead the conversation in terms of their own mastery of standards and competencies and explaining how they plan to proceed in the course is the best way to expand ownership. Then, if the parents and teachers feel the need for an adults-only conversation, they can arrange that as well.

Covid has broken down some of the walls between school and home. Let’s build upon that so that parents and teachers are true partners in the work of engaging and educating students.

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How to make your district’s portrait of a graduate even better

October 19, 2020


How to make your district’s portrait of a graduate even better

Whether it’s called a portrait, profile, or vision, districts across the country are collaboratively creating an aspirational model of their graduate.

What is a Portrait of a Graduate?

While these profiles often contain some unique local influences, they are largely very similar from district to district and include the following skills and/or attributes:

  1. Knowledge/Mastery of Core Academic Content
  2. Communication 
  3. Collaboration
  4. Creativity 
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Citizenship

Some districts limit their key characteristics to 4 or 5, others have as many as 10.  IN large part, they are built upon our understandings of what the world of college, career and civic life demand as illustrated in works like Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, Hewlett’s Deeper Learning Competencies, the core competencies laid out by the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and others. 

How does a portrait help?

In virtually all cases, the Portrait represents a move toward the future and a realization that what (may have) worked in the past simply does not set our children up for success (measured in myriad ways).

These portraits are wonderful. They are usually the result of a lengthy process involving many stakeholders.  Each of the competencies is further broken down into sub-indicators or progressions that reflect our ideals. For example, we may see a focus on equity and cultural responsiveness in communication and collaborations, so that we prepare our students for a global world in which they are empathetic and curious co-creators of solutions to new and complex problems.

How does a portrait fall short?

However…on their own, the portraits aren’t enough.  Collaborative, creative, critical, communicative thinkers will not emerge from a non-collaborative, conforming, and  compliant status quo.

Most districts get this and consistently and explicitly reference the portrait of the graduate when making key decisions. Still, though, I wonder if we could do more to fully define the conditions necessary to fully realize the portrait in each student.

Portrait of an Educator

If we want our students to graduate with the identified skills and attributes, we need to cultivate them in our adult community as well.  Some districts have done this by reframing “graduate” as “learner” to be inclusive of all stakeholders.  Others, like the Mesa, AZ public schools offer progressions for learning facilitators and learning leaders as well as for students.  The Henrico County (VA) Public Schools Learner Profile does this as well via it’s through playlists

It’s important for us to remember that the competencies we wish to cultivate in our students were likely not the priorities we recall from our own educational experiences. Creative and innovative thinking, for example, may be prized today but few of us were encouraged to develop these skills in our early schooling,  teacher prep or in our early years of teaching.  Yet, the more we can say, “That’s a great skill to have and I’m working on it” the better models we can be for our students.

Thus, I might suggest that in addition the competencies mentioned above, we add “vulnerability” to the educators’ portrait. (With a nod, of course, to the great Brené Brown.) Teachers, leaders and other educators need to be able to self-assess their own comfort levels and move forward without shame.  

Portrait of a School System

Similarly, our school systems were not created with an eye toward the values espoused in our POGs.  We have literal and figurative separations between departments, offices, subject areas and grade levels, for example.  

School systems that are truly collaborative might include the finance department in instructional rounds, for example, or may create cross-functional ad hoc teams that utilize design thinking to solve complex  problems.

To our portrait of a school system, we might consider the essential conditions necessary throughout the district to bring the POG to life. Lake Travis Independent School District in TX provides one example.

Portrait of a Community

In our increasingly polarized society, this one may be most difficult and yet most necessary.  Many districts seek to instill a sense of informed citizenship in our students and yet we are witnessing levels of vitriol and partisan rhetoric that have rendered civilized debate all but obsolete.

And yet, we know that our communities –individually and collectively–care deeply about the success and well-being of our children.  

If our communities can coalesce around “open dialogue and constructive debate”, it is more likely that we can come together to support our students and future community leaders.

If there are districts and communities that have already made progress in these areas–or are beginning to do so–please connect and share!

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