From “Back to School” to “Back to the Future”

A guest post by Ken Kay, CEO, EdLeader21, and Aaron Spence, superintendent, Virginia Beach City Schools, Va.

Aaron Spence [left] and Ken Kay [right].

Okay, we’ll admit it: both of us were already working on our traditional “Back to School” blogs when it dawned on us that we should be doing something differently. Yes, we need to welcome folks back to school after summer vacation. But must we welcome our stakeholders back to “school” as it has always been understood? Could we make “Back to School” an opportunity to help students, teachers, parents and administrators chart a new course for the direction of our schools? Can we help our communities envision the future of our schools even as we head back into them this fall?

For the past 15 years, we both have been collaborating with school and district leaders to transform education as we know it. Both of us have focused much of our energy on rethinking the purpose of education and the competencies students need to possess in the 21st century. This work shouldn’t have to be esoteric and conceptual; at some level, we’ve all heard enough experts waxing philosophically in TED Talks about the inadequacy of our current school system. Instead, this work should be intentional, concrete and practical. Like you, we’ve thought a lot about the kinds of schools that could prepare students for success. Now, we need to make them visible.

As we head back to school, a great way to move forward with this work is to develop a clear, coherent vision of those competencies that are required for students’ success in 21st-century life and work. This vision will ensure that stakeholders have a shared understanding of those competencies, and that these competencies are used as the criteria to ensure that all future decisions — from the boardroom to the classroom — support a common vision of 21st-century teaching and learning. Fortunately, we have a useful framework for this discussion in EdLeader21’s work around the 4Cs: critical thinking; communication; collaboration; and creativity. To learn more about this framework and the work EdLeader21 is doing to support discussion around the 4Cs in school districts across the country, visit

We believe that integrating the 4Cs into conversations about a district’s vision for the future of its schools is critically important. Districts that are interested in preparing students today for their world tomorrow are intentionally integrating these competencies into their strategic plan, their curriculum and their conversations with their community. Many district leadership teams have accomplished this work by adopting a “Profile of a Graduate” that specifically identifies those competencies required for 21st-century student success in language that is familiar to the stakeholders of that community.

In Virginia Beach, for example, EdLeader21 helped the district adopt its strategic plan, “Compass to 2020.” This plan conveys a clear, compelling vision for the future and was designed to guide the work of the district for five years in four key areas: academic achievement; multiple pathways to success; social and emotional development; and the strengthening of a culture of growth and excellence. An important part of communicating about “Compass to 2020” with their community was expressing clear outcomes that would be expected as a result of their work over those five years. In addition to creating Navigational Markers, a scorecard for the division that would allow the board and community to monitor specific metrics, they also created a Graduate Profile that identifies the specific 21st-century competencies that the district and community have adopted. These competencies were developed using the 4Cs as the starting point for a community conversation and include communication and collaboration, problem-solving and creativity, critical thinking and inquiry, personal and social responsibility, and cross-cultural competency. For Virginia Beach, this profile provides a guidepost to district and school leadership as they work to articulate and meet their strategic objectives.

Around the country, dozens of other districts have formally adopted their own unique “Profile of a Graduate,” not only to catalyze their districts’ transformations, but also to be responsive to their communities’ specific needs and goals. EdLeader21 has collected resources that emerged from their best and most promising practices to help you create a “Profile of a Graduate” on a new website: There, you will find examples from schools and districts across the country that have created a “Profile of a Graduate,” as well as an implementation guide to engage your community in dialogue about it. We have also created a “Profile Builder” with which you and your stakeholders can create your own personal “Profile of a Graduate” by selecting the 21st-century student competencies you believe are most essential. These can be shared with other members of your community to create momentum towards the adoption of a formal “Profile of a Graduate” for your district.

The “Profile of a Graduate” shouldn’t be presented or perceived as another new initiative for your district. Instead, it should become the “North Star” for all of your other initiatives. Over the course of the next school year, you’ll be making important decisions not only about curriculum and instruction, but also about digital learning initiatives, professional learning opportunities, capstone projects, portfolio and other alternative forms of performance assessment, hiring and evaluation practices and so much more. Imagine if decisions about all of those initiatives were made with explicit attention to their impact on students’ development of the 21st-century competencies you’ve identified in your “Profile of a Graduate.”

Talk to other district leaders who have led the development of a “Profile of a Graduate.” Both of us will be glad to introduce you to one. And consider how this year’s return to school might be the best time to help your district focus on its future. Imagine welcoming your community back to work that feels a little less like “Back to School” and a lot more like “Back to the Future.”


Ken Kay is the CEO of EdLeader21 and the Founding President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. He can be reached at

Aaron Spence is the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Schools in Virginia Beach, VA. Spence was named 2018 Virginia Superintendent of the Year. He can be reached at