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

Four Bright Stars in Public Education

The four finalists for the 2017 AASA National Superintendent of the Year participating in a panel discussion on current trends in education on Thursday, Jan. 12 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

While educators continue to wonder about the impact that the incoming administration will have on education, I’m excited about four of the brightest stars in public education. These individuals visited the nation’s capital earlier this month. I’m referring to the finalists for the 2017 National Superintendent of the Year.

AASA’s executive committee joined me in hosting these champions for children during our press conference at the National Press Club. Without a doubt, choosing the eventual honoree will be a tough task for our blue-ribbon panel of judges.

Our finalists have tremendous passion for what they do. Here is an excerpt of what they shared, demonstrating their commitment to their work and more importantly, their commitment to the students they serve:

Barbara Jenkins, Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools: “It’s reaffirming to our community and to our schools that we’re headed in the right direction, that we’re doing work that is recognized at a national level. I want to commend every superintendent across this nation because they do such critical work for our young people.”

Stewart McDonald, Kodiak Island Borough (Alaska) School District: “Our schools are such a central component of every one of our towns. Businesses are involved in our schools, our communities are involved in our schools so this feels like a validation of the incredible work we have formed in our collaborative partnerships.”

James Merrill, Wake County (N.C.) Public School System: “Public education in America is one of the last great institutions. It is what delivers our people to be enlightened and informed adults to preserve our democracy.”

Matthew Utterback, North Clackamas (Ore.) School District: “It’s an incredible honor to represent our school district and the state of Oregon. Our success in our school district has really been a collaborative and team effort. The National Superintendent of the Year has the opportunity to share stories, to share learning, to share the good work that is happening across our country.”

Hundreds of superintendents and other school system leaders will convene in New Orleans, March 2-4, where the eventual honoree will be announced during Day 1 of our National Conference on Education.

I invite you to view our latest video where you’ll hear more from Superintendents Jenkins, McDonald, Merrill and Utterback.

AASA is grateful to Aramark and VALIC for serving as co-sponsors of the National Superintendent of the Year program.

Dan Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.


Thank you to our Nation’s Champions for Children

This week, millions of Americans will gather around dining room tables all over the country and give thanks to the people who mean the most to them.

Let me take this opportunity to say “thank you” to the individuals who I consider the foremost thought leaders in education—our superintendents.

Last week, the nation’s State Superintendents of the Year convened in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the tremendous strides made in public education. They also exchanged ideas and best practices that are working in their respective school districts.

AASA 2016 National Superintendent of the Year Thomas S. Tucker presenting at AASA's Superintendent of the Year Gala in Washington, D.C.

AASA 2016 National Superintendent of the Year Thomas S. Tucker presenting at AASA’s Superintendent of the Year Gala in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 2016.

As part of our Forum, we heard from Thomas Tucker, the 2016 National Superintendent of the Year. (See video). The parents and grandparents of this young man were sharecroppers in an impoverished Arkansas community. Tucker, the superintendent of Ohio’s Princeton City Schools, grew up in a house heated only by two pot-bellied stoves. Yet, his family instilled in him that to rise out of poverty, one must earn a first-class education. During his keynote remarks, he said, “I had some of the best caring and compassionate teachers in the world. All of us were poor but [our teachers] wouldn’t let us develop a poor mentality.”

Over the past few weeks through our leadership programs, we have seen glowing examples of caring and compassionate teaching and learning going on in the U.S.

In late September, some of our superintendents met in Vista, Calif. as part of the Personalized Learning Summit. At a time when more than 100 school systems across the country are implementing personalized learning initiatives, this innovative practice has become a powerful way to reach every child to meet their specific needs. I thank California Superintendent of the Year Devin Vodicka and his school district, Vista Unified, for hosting this summit.

Members of AASA's Digital Consortium meeting at California’s Napa Valley Unified School District.

Members of AASA’s Digital Consortium meeting at California’s Napa Valley Unified School District.

A few weeks later, several dozen superintendents met in California’s Napa Valley Unified School District for the fall meeting of AASA’s Digital Consortium. As Jill Gildea, superintendent of Illinois’ Fremont School District, tweeted during the meeting, “learning and engagement is evident.” New Technology High School was among the schools visited during the meeting. Principal Riley Johnson stated, “We have teachers here who are some of the best project-based practitioners I’ve ever met.” Part of New Tech’s mission is “to be a student-centered model for education innovation.” The gathering proved to be very successful, giving tech-savvy superintendents opportunities to bring proven ideas back home when it comes to digital learning.

Earlier this month, representatives from K-12 leadership and heads of community colleges met for the fourth time in two years to raise awareness about one of the most critical issues in education today: college readiness. As part of our partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges, the meeting was an example of what it means to blur the lines with school districts and community colleges as we find new ways to get kids ready for college and later life.

As I travel throughout the country, I am pleased to see more and more superintendents engaging with other superintendents and education stakeholders to improve their individual skill sets and strengthen their respective school districts.

America’s education system is the best in the world. Our graduate rate is the highest it’s ever been. Our drop-out rate is the lowest it’s ever been. More kids today are attending college than ever before. It’s no wonder that our superintendents are our nation’s champions for children. They are the educational ambassadors in their communities.

Thank you for the outstanding work you do. Happy Thanksgiving!