Deep Dives

How Can States Prepare Students for the Future? The “Portrait of the Graduate” Helps Set the Vision

April 26, 2024
Andy Tucker
Director of Policy
How Can States Prepare Students for the Future? The “Portrait of the Graduate” Helps Set the Vision

How can states help ensure students graduate equipped and ready for future success? 

That’s the question that sparked CASEL’s inquiry into a powerful education policy tool that states use to support districts and schools, the portrait of a graduate. The resulting report, produced in partnership with Civic, offers a deep dive into how different states are using this tool to help prepare students for fulfilling lives and careers. 

We spoke with the report ‘s co-author, CASEL’s Director of Policy Andy Tucker, about this valuable tool. Here’s what he had to say:

1. To begin with, could you explain what a “portrait of a graduate” is?

A portrait of a graduate represents the vision that a state (or district) has for the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that students should master before graduation. 

They are typically developed through a lengthy process that engages stakeholders from within the school district, the community as a whole, the local business/industry community, and postsecondary education providers to ensure that multiple perspectives are considered and reflected within the portrait. 

The portrait of a graduate can provide the strategic direction for a state or school district to ensure their students graduate ready for their futures. Many states and districts are developing these portraits right now because there is more and more pressure to prepare students well for their futures. With the cost of higher education continuing to climb and employers struggling to find workers with the skills they need, these portraits are a great roadmap for states and districts to demonstrate they’re serious about the task of preparing students for postsecondary success.

2. Why were you interested in studying how states use this tool? How does it address current needs in education? 

As someone focused on policy, I know how state policy guides the work of schools and districts. When a state develops a portrait of a graduate as its vision of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions expected of graduates, schools and districts can recognize their role in developing and supporting these student outcomes. In every portrait of a graduate we identified, the desired skills directly aligned to social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. 

I co-authored this brief to help stakeholders across the education, postsecondary, and workforce systems make the connection between SEL and the future-readiness skills identified as essential in portraits of a graduate. I believe this is vital in centering the conversation on the importance of SEL in schools around how SEL prepares students to be ready to take on life. Indeed, to me, the purpose of education is to prepare students to be successful, contributing members of our society—SEL helps them get there.

3. What are some of the biggest surprises, insights, or “aha moments” you had while writing this brief?

In writing this brief, we uncovered three particularly important takeaways we hope states will consider when developing their portraits of a graduate: 

  • First, get the input and perspective of multiple stakeholders from within schools and the greater community when developing the portrait. This includes educators from schools and districts throughout the state—rural and urban, small and large, traditional schools and alternative schools, etc. In my experience working in and with schools and districts for many years, each of these different environments brings a unique view of how to prepare young people in their communities for success. 
  • Equally important is engaging the community in which schools are located, especially representatives from the postsecondary education providers and employers, both large and small, in the state. As I stated earlier, ultimately the products of our K-12 system—our graduates—will leave school to enter into higher education and the workforce, and it’s our job to prepare them as well as we can. Understanding the knowledge, skills, and competencies that employers and educators from colleges and universities expect of our graduates is essential. This vision of a graduate can provide schools and districts with the information they need to effectively prepare their students for life after high school.
  • The other main insight is how important it is to make the portrait of a graduate a living thing. States must work diligently to help educators in schools and districts understand what the portrait of a graduate is, how and why it was developed, and how they can implement programming and pedagogy to support development of these critical skills and dispositions. This is hard work, as some schools—especially large, comprehensive high schools—may not yet have made this kind of vision-setting a priority. So it’s vital to offer professional learning that explores how to teach students these competencies and allows for deep reflection on where great work is already happening and where improvements are needed. 

4. It’s clear how these portraits could help unify schools, districts, and states around a single vision for student success, but how are they relevant to policymakers?

Through our Collaborating States Initiative, CASEL collaborates with state education agencies to support high-quality, systemic SEL. This includes providing direct technical assistance about tools like the portrait of a graduate.  With this brief, we hope to ensure that all those leading statewide education policy—a critical force in ensuring that all students receive an education that prepares them for success—understand the power and value of the portrait of the graduate and have access to examples of how other districts have pursued this work. 

To learn more about the portrait of the graduate, read our report, Portraits of a Graduate: Strengthening Career and College Readiness Through Social and Emotional Skill Development.

As CASEL’s director of policy, Andy Tucker focuses on state-level policy and provides resources to state education agencies to facilitate higher-quality implementation of SEL for students across the country. In previous roles, Andy has focused on career and college readiness. Portraits of a graduate serve an ideal connection between Andy’s areas of expertise, showing how students can prepare effectively for their futures through social and emotional learning activities.

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