A School Leader’s View: Our Schools Model End-of-Year Exams on the Way Grad Students Defend Their Academic Theses. Innovations Like This Are Needed Now More Than Ever

Envision Education

Everyone is talking about how this back-to-school season is unlike any other. Thanks to COVID-19, schools across the country are being forced to radically rethink what education can look like. But what concrete changes are being put in place? How are we truly adapting and innovating, not just during this pandemic, but all the time and in service of all students?

It’s no secret that U.S. schools are deeply inequitable. Between the disproportionate effects of the pandemic and the nationwide protests against police brutality and anti-Blackness, 2020 has laid bare the systemic racism and structural oppression with which too many educators and families are already familiar. Schools like ours at Envision Education — a charter management organization with five schools in Oakland and San Francisco, where 95 percent of our students are Black and/or Latino and 75 percent will be the first in their families to attend college — need to do all they can to remove the barriers put up by systemic racism so all students have access to an empowering education.

Removing those barriers is about more than a rigorous college prep curriculum. Educators need to rethink all aspects of the policies, programs and procedures we took for granted, dismantling outdated or oppressive classroom practices and figuring out new ways to empower students who have not historically been well served in American schools. One approach we have taken at Envision is to implement Portfolio Defenses, a re-envisioning of year-end assessments that’s modeled on how college and graduate students defend their academic theses. It encompasses hands-on learning, students’ real-world experiences and social-emotional skills along with academic knowledge.

A key part of the Portfolio Defense framework is the Graduate Profile. This is the framework through which our students create the portfolio of work that they will defend at the end of eighth, 10th and 12th grades. It outlines a series of key skills that students must demonstrate they’ve developed over the course of their schoolwork. Instead of focusing on traditional classwork and time spent in seats, students keep track of and reflect on the learning they’ve done over the years and the skills they’ve developed along the way. This weaves together the key elements of a whole-child education: academic knowledge, social-emotional learning and identity.

The Graduate Profile has been part of Envision’s model from the beginning. Over the years, we’ve gotten feedback from teachers and students that, though they felt the Graduate Profile had great promise, it wasn’t always successfully integrated into our instructional program. When COVID-19 upended American education, it swept away many of the limitations and assumptions that had kept us from addressing those issues. Instead of simply adapting our existing model to distance learning, we changed our structure, support system and curriculum to better deliver an equitable education in this new landscape.

We involved our students directly in redesigning the Graduate Profile, to ensure that their voices were reflected all the way through. It is crucial for students, especially those who have been historically marginalized, to feel they belong in their educational environment to foster successful engaged learning. Through our students’ input, it became clear that we needed to deepen the identity component, helping them reflect on their experiences through the lens of racial and ethnic background, socioeconomic status, family, community and much more. We also recognized the need to expand the Graduate Profile’s emphasis on equity, to empower our students as they grow into engaged, informed citizens.

To ensure that the Graduate Profile experience is a seamless part of the educational journey that our students build over time, we created a dedicated Graduate Profile Lab Course. In the first-year pilot of the course, students design their own learning through a menu of articles, podcasts, interviews and texts that align to the three key skills of the Graduate Profile: collaboration, critical thinking and communication. At the end of each quarter, students will do a Mini-Defense of Learning, in which they will reflect on their progress toward their goals and their preparation for college. Over the next three years, the Graduate Profile Lab Course will become a self-directed learning opportunity, where students can shape their own education according to the passions they will then pursue in college, career and beyond.

The Graduate Profile is not an end in itself; it is not a stand-alone tool for increasing student achievement, or a means for collecting data and measuring results. It is more holistic than that: a way to ensure that what we teach reflects what students will need to thrive. It is an answer not to the question, “What have students learned?” but, “What skills do students need to succeed, and how can they develop them?”

As students return to their schools this fall, they should not be returning to “normal.” This is a chance to truly start reimagining how we teach and what approaches we use to prepare all students — no matter their backgrounds — for success in higher education and adult life. By refining the Graduate Profile and adding new curriculum that will engage students more fully than before, we are leaning into that spirit of change and innovative improvement, to support many more years of truly empowering student learning.

Gia Truong is CEO of Envision Education.

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