Transform the Whole System


By Karen K. Garza, PhD

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”  
    – W. Edwards Deming

As school system leaders, we are charged with the enormous responsibility of caring for the education and overall well-being of every child. We are the stewards of a community’s greatest assets­­—its students and its schools. This responsibility is even more critical today as we prepare all students to be lifelong learners and contributors in the 21st century.

This work is not for the faint of heart. Fundamentally transforming a deeply entrenched system requires intentionality and the focused attention of the overall leadership in the school district.

As system leaders, it’s important to ask ourselves:

  • What are the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that our community has for its students?
  • What are the skills and habits of mind that our children need for success in this rapidly changing, complex world

  • What are the implications for the design of the learning experiences—and equitable access to those experiences, we provide in our school systems?


One way that we support innovative educational leaders in this transformation is through a visioning and strategic process that focuses on a nested educational system, defining each district’s Portrait of a Graduate, Portrait of a System, and Portrait of an Educator.

Portrait of a 21st Century Graduate

Locally developed, but globally positioned, a Portrait of a Graduate serves as a district’s North Star for systemic transformation. This process and its end product define the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that each specific district desires their students to have upon graduation.

By providing strategic direction for the redesign of the overall educational experience for every student, this collective vision reinvigorates and re-engages students, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders.

Portrait of a 21st Century System

To make a Portrait of a Graduate more than just a pretty vision hanging on the wall, a school district must place an intentional focus on shifting and aligning the entire system. To accomplish this strategic shift, we support dedicated and passionate school district leaders to align their system so that the district’s Portrait of a Graduate becomes a reality for every student.

Leaders at every level of the system must be prepared and committed to establishing new conditions, processes, and practices that create equitable and enduring 21st century experiences for every educator and student.

Portrait of a 21st Century Educator

At the heart of this education transformation is the overall learning experience provided to every student.  Learning experiences must be designed through the purposeful integration of rigorous academic content and 21st century skills, mindsets, and literacies. In order for a district to realize its new vision, district leaders must consider the needs of the adults charged with delivering on that vision.

The Portrait of an Educator framework guides the identification and design of new tools, resources, and supports necessary for 21st century educators.


Together, this nested system of a Portrait of a Graduate, Portrait of a System, and Portrait of an Educator combine to create a holistic path to delivering the educational experience and environment that every child needs to be a lifelong learner and contributor in the 21st century, and beyond.

KarenGarzaHeadshotRound small
By Karen K. Garza, PhD,
CEO and President,
Battelle for Kids