In September, Scaling Student Success hosted a co-design institute.
Can graduate profiles help redefine student success?
Districts throughout the state are using them to change mindsets around education
March 25, 2024
In 2014, students in Vista USD were interviewed by district leaders and asked what word comes to mind when they think of “school.” The words students chose revealed their true attitudes toward education: “irrelevant,” “boring,” “impersonal,” “controlled.”
In Davis Joint USD, an 8,500-student district west of Sacramento, students expressed they were not satisfied with “playing the game” of school. Data also showed that nearly a quarter of the district’s students who attend college do not complete their degrees.
In Cajon Valley USD, where almost three-quarters of students live in or near poverty, many skilled-labor jobs that paid well were going unfilled. An education system that pushed college as the best outcome for students was creating a huge gap in the workforce.
These districts and others throughout the state are seeing the need to redefine student success.
“The 20th century approach to teaching and learning is obsolete,” said Matt Doyle, superintendent of Vista USD, in a recent policy brief. “The 21st century is not high stakes tests ... it’s about how we inspire kids to want to be drivers of their own education. And that’s a pretty big mindset shift.”
Leaders in these districts began to grapple with big questions: What are we trying to accomplish with TK-12 education? What preparation do students need to find gainful employment? What 21st century skills are needed to solve the problems of tomorrow? How can our students lead happier, healthier lives?
In answering these questions, each district created its own version of a graduate profile. Graduate profiles are community-defined “portraits” of the skills, knowledge and competencies students will need by the end of their pre-K-12 journey. No two graduate profiles are alike, but they are usually comprised of academic knowledge, workforce and career readiness skills, social-emotional skills and civic engagement.
In 2019, a partnership of eight school districts and eight practice partners who support graduate profiles came together to form Scaling Student Success. Founder and Executive Director Roman Stearns says California is lagging behind when it comes to articulating what its graduates need. At least a dozen states (including Virginia, South Carolina, Utah and New Mexico) have developed a statewide graduate profile while California has not.
That hasn’t stopped dozens of California school districts from creating their own graduate profiles. More than 75 districts throughout the state have adopted graduate profiles, Stearns said, including many of the largest districts. By Stearns’ estimation, some 40 percent of California students attend a school with a graduate profile, also sometimes called a portrait of a learner.
Scaling Student Success supports more districts adopting graduate profiles by serving as a collective impact hub that “holds the vision” for this movement. The nonprofit does not provide direct services to districts — most districts use outside consultants or embark on creating graduate profiles on their own — but it does advocate, facilitate a community of practice and coordinate research that leads to policy recommendations, including in a recently published white paper.
In the absence of state leadership, Stearns said Scaling Student Success is embracing the “lead from the middle” approach.
“State initiatives often are implemented top-down and can be slow, bureaucratic and perceived as compliance-focused. Efforts that bubble up from classrooms and schools may be highly innovative and have substantial impact on some students, but rarely, if ever, get to scale,” he said. “By leading from the middle, we have greater opportunity to honor the spirit of local control, implement in ways that are contextually appropriate, and move toward scale faster than a true grassroots push.”
Establishing proof points
In the summer of 2022, Scaling Student Success launched The Reimagining CA Schools Innovation Pilot, a collaborative effort among five school districts on a journey to more closely examine their graduate profiles and establish proof points that can demonstrate the potential of graduate profiles to transform education.
In four recently published policy briefs on these pilot schools, district leaders share the story of how their graduate profiles came to life.
Each graduate profile begins with community input. In Davis Joint USD, collecting community input included district leaders meeting with parents, employers, migrant families and admissions officials at the nearby University of California, Davis, who told them, “To be successful in college you need to be a strong communicator, adaptable, persistent, and resilient.” The district’s school board held study sessions that explored the question, “What is school for?”
In 2018, the Davis Joint USD school board adopted its graduate profile, which focuses on six competencies the district’s teachers found to be “teachable and assessable.” The graduate profile also ties into the districts’ goals. Davis Joint USD Superintendent Matt Best said the school board’s focus is to increase student agency, belonging and relevance, and the graduate profile “will be a critical piece of that work.”
After graduate profiles are created, districts must then go “from poster to practice.” Following the development of its graduate profile known as the “5 Cs” (character, collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking), Anaheim Union HSD assembled a team of 50 teachers who represented various schools, departments and grade levels, and tasked them with describing what each competency looked like in practice. What emerged was a rubric for each “C,” with indicators for “emerging,” “progressing” and “excelling,” and a description of what you would see in a classroom that promotes that skill.
In Vista USD, describing students as “self-directed learners who are self-aware” has led to changes that increase student agency. For instance, students are partners in the process of deciding whether they have met academic standards. They meet with their teacher to discuss their work and progress — and can even challenge a grade — based on evidence they’ve collected in a portfolio.
Graduate profiles also prepare students for employment opportunities in their communities. In Cajon Valley USD, Superintendent David Miyashiro partnered with Ed Hidalgo to create a “World of Work” curriculum for the district’s K-8 students. The WoW program features a three-step process: “self-awareness, journey, and my story.” In step one, students learn their strengths, interests and values. Next, they explore careers and their academic options. After they learn and apply skills by experiencing different types of jobs in the workplace, they tell the story of who they are.
“Every child has unique strengths, interests and values that are needed in the world. How does a child aspire to a career they don’t know exists?” Miyashiro is quoted in the policy brief.
Challenges and opportunities
While there are many bright spots, implementation appears to be the greatest challenge for districts adopting graduate profiles, according to a recent brief by WestEd. The brief analyzed 54 graduate profiles in California and revealed insights from 11 California school leaders who were interviewed about the formation and implementation of their graduate profiles. Leaders spoke about the challenge of balancing a comprehensive graduate profile with one that is digestible and attainable.
Creating systemic change of this sort can take years to fully realize, and Stearns points out that state-level support could allow for faster uptake in schools.
To explain the promise that graduate profiles have for students, Stearns points to a district that adopted this approach more than a decade ago.
In 2007, staff turnover was high and graduation rates where low in Lindsay USD, a small Central Valley community where nearly half of the district’s 4,000 students enter kindergarten as English language learners. Today, the district boasts a 98 percent graduation rate with 75 percent of learners attending college and 57 percent of them completing their degrees in four years. The school scored 99 percent on a school safety and climate index survey and has decreased student involvement in gangs from 14 percent down to 3 percent. The shift came as a result of putting students at the center of their own learning through the districtwide adoption of a learner-centered Performance-Based System and the cultivation of Lifelong Learning Standards.
Now, students as young as kindergarten are taking charge of their learning.
“From 5-year-olds to 18-year-olds, [learners] can all recite their current SMART goals and talk about lifelong learning goals. That’s part of their vocabulary, part of how they think,” said Lindsay Education Foundation development director Barry Sommer, in a case study published about the district.
Just before Lindsay’s students go out into the real world, their final “test” is the Senior Exit Exam, where students demonstrate to a panel of community and school representatives how they’ve met their Lifelong Learning Standards. Students also share their future plans and how they will impact their community.
“If we have academic competence in learners, that’s great. If they have agency or empowerment, that’s great. If they’re going to the best colleges or having opportunities to advance in life, that’s all great. But I’m also really invested in what kind of human beings they’re becoming. ... And that’s what the Lifelong Learning Standards embrace,” said Tom Rooney, superintendent of Lindsay USD.
With a school absenteeism crisis and reports that young people are facing unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Many school leaders are saying it’s time to transform education to make it more meaningful and relevant to students’ futures.
“The old system is not working, it’s broken. What’s at risk is young people’s faith in the institution called education,” said Anaheim Union HSD Superintendent Michael Matsuda in a policy brief. “We’ve been in this silo for 20 years, focusing on standardized tests, but this generation is faced with unprecedented problems and challenges, and the kids know it. So there needs to be a sense of urgency.”
The Reimagining CA Schools Innovation Pilot
Explore the graduate profiles developed by these five districts and learn how they are creating conditions to foster the future success of students.
  • Anaheim Union High School District
  • Cajon Valley Unified School District
  • Davis Joint Unified School District
  • Lindsay Unified School District
  • Vista Unified School District
More Online
Find a collection of resources on graduate profiles on ACSA’s Resource Hub at content.acsa.org/tag/graduate-profile.
In September, Scaling Student Success hosted a co-design institute.
In September, Scaling Student Success hosted a co-design institute.